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Prisons: Suicides

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the number of suicides in prisons in England and Wales.

My Lords, every self-inflicted death in custody is a tragedy. We continue to do all that we can to improve the safety of prisoners. Our vision, set out in the Prisons Strategy White Paper, includes plans to make prisons safer for staff and prisoners. We have also announced additional funding to expand the prison workforce to enable a greater focus on creating a regime that supports safety.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In the 12 months to last September, there were 93 deaths by suicide in prison, an increase of 22% on the previous year. This is paralleled by the huge increase in self-harming in prison, which is at 10 times the rate of the wider community. One of the factors in this is of course the extent of mental health problems among prisoners—nine out of 10—and the slowness with which they are referred to the appropriate medical services. What steps have the Government taken to speed up the process whereby those with mental health problems are pointed in the direction of those who can offer them help, so that they do not spend so long in isolation in segregated units?

My Lords, we published the National Partnership Agreement for Health and Social Care for England on 23 February 2023, setting out a shared priority to deliver safe, decent and effective care, and improve health outcomes for people in prison and on probation. As part of the measures we have taken, new prison officers are trained in measures to assess and identify persons potentially at risk. The existing cohort of prison officers is receiving additional training, as understanding of the complex nature of this problem develops. There are increased facilities for sharing knowledge so that individual insights are passed between prison staff, the medical and psychological staff assisting them and the prisoners themselves, because we have measures to allow prisoners to mentor one another.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the number of suicides in prisons is likely to fall if we could reduce the number of people with mental health issues being sent to prison and, furthermore, if we could increase the amount of meaningful out-of-cell activity offered to prisoners?

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with both points raised by the noble Viscount. The range of opportunities for activity outwith the prison estate, and within the estate by way of leisure and recreation, is an important matter that the Government are looking at.

My Lords, it has been nearly a decade since the Minister for Prisons asked me to undertake a review of the self-inflicted deaths of young people in the prison estate. Since then, things have got worse. The reality is that prisons are more overcrowded. The very positive suggestions that the Minister made in answer to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, about how people will be trained to provide support, will work only if there are sufficient numbers of staff who stay sufficiently long in the job for it to work.

The Minister has also just said that efforts are made for rehabilitation, training and education. Again, if prisons are so overcrowded and there are such staff shortages that people cannot be escorted to the extracurricular activities he described, how on earth is this going to work? Is not the reality that this Government have lost control of prisons and of the fundamental responsibility to rehabilitate people into society?

My Lords, as of 30 September 2023, there were 23,058 prison officers in bands 3 to 5. That is an important cohort, because those are the bands who have access to prisoners in the areas and respects of which the noble Lord has spoken. That is an increase of 1,441 officers on the previous year, which amounts to an increase of 6.7% in the number of officers in that cohort in full employment.

My Lords, one-third of all prison suicides occur very early—within the first week in custody. Research shows that isolation from relationships or a breakdown in communication can play a decisive role. Prison receptions can be very chaotic places and it can take days, rather than hours, to establish contact with family members, who are also very worried. What are the Government doing to improve care when people arrive in prison and, in particular, to ensure that early contact with families is made?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question and for the informal discussion we had prior to Questions today. We know that the risk of suicide can be higher when prisoners are on remand and in the early days of their sentence, when the experience of prison is new and shocking, or for that matter when they have been recalled to custody. We have digitally streamlined the reception processes to flag risk information earlier, in the manner I was describing earlier to the noble Lord.

We are promoting supportive conversations between staff and prisoners. All incoming prisoners are interviewed in reception areas to assess their risk of self-harm. There is a risk identification toolkit—a training measure for officers—which helps staff assess risk effectively and provides appropriate support to manage identified risk. We are rolling out a peer support project—this is the sort of work I was discussing with the noble Lord earlier—where prisoners mentor one another, thereby, most importantly, inculcating supportiveness and strengthening and encouraging self-worth.

My Lords, in recent weeks, I have met two young female prison officers who have dealt with suicide and attempted suicide. We have heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, about the increase in suicide and self-harm. My noble friend Lord Harris alluded to the reduction in experience of prison officers. The figures are that the number of prison officers with 10 years’ or more experience fell from 34% to 28% in the 12 months to December 2023. Does the noble and learned Lord accept that these two facts are linked? What is he doing to try to increase the length of time that prison officers stay in the service?

My Lords, as I said in response to a previous question, the number of officers in key cohorts has increased over the past year. As to the rest of the question that the noble Lord poses, I do not have the information to hand but, with his indulgence, I shall write to him, or have the Minister in the responsible department write to him, on the subject.

My Lords, the recently announced proposed change to the recall period for serving IPP sentences is welcomed. What assessment has the Minister made of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s recommendation that prisoners’ IPP status should be considered as a potential risk factor for suicide and self-harm?

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for that question. IPP prisoners are a matter of concern to many noble Lords. It remains a priority for the Government that all those on IPP sentences receive the support they need to progress towards safe release from custody. The Government continue to focus on the rehabilitation of IPP prisoners through a refreshed and updated action plan, published in April 2023, providing a robust and effective sentence plan tailored to individual needs and recognising the difficulties, of which the right reverend Prelate is aware, of persons facing a very long period of incarceration and the attendant difficulties that that causes them emotionally.

My Lords, the House will understand the answers given by the noble and learned Lord in relation to the training of individual officers, but that does not deal with the problem of increasing suicides attributable to really serious staff shortages. Increased numbers of staff have to be taken alongside increasing prisoner populations. So what is being done to improve the detection and diagnosis of mental ill-health of prisoners and, crucially, what steps are being taken to improve or reduce waiting times for psychiatric treatment and placement of prisoners in hospitals where hospital placements are needed for mentally ill prisoners?

My Lords, most prisoners with mental health needs are able to receive the care and treatment that they need within prison. The group to which the noble Lord refers, those with acute problems requiring treatment in hospital, have to be referred, assessed and transferred to hospital under the Mental Health Act. We are determined to ensure that these transfers take place in a timely manner. We are working with health and justice partners and will continue to work to provide a non-statutory independent role designed to improve oversight and to monitor delivery of the 28-day time limit for transfers set out in NHS England’s good practice guidance. There is also a pilot health and justice hub in the north-east of England, improving the way in which courts, health services and prisons work together at local levels better to support those with severe mental illness, with a view to smoothing their pathway into the correct treatment.