10 Mar 2015

Prison suicides: will we ever learn?

Sixteen years ago, the then chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, produced a report, Suicide Is Everyone’s Concern.

Self harm was on the increase. Prisons were rapidly filling up.  As a result there was a greater focus on suicide prevention, with a more holistic approach to safer regimes and improved  identification and case arrangements for high-risk prisoners.

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Lo and behold , two decades on, with another depressing spike in suicides, and almost exactly the same recommendations are now emanating from the prisons and probation ombudsman.

Nigel Newcomen describes the 56 per cent rise in a year  as “unacceptable”. Of course it is. But it’s yet another despairing vicious circle. And the reasons are obvious.

Mr Newcomen points out that of those who killed themselves, more had been locked up for longer in the days before their deaths. It gives more ammunition to those who blame staff cuts for the increase in self harm.

Then there are the concerns about early days in prisons, poor risk assessment and weak support…. virtually identical to Sir David’s findings back in 1999.

And when we get to the lessons to be learned, they are the same lessons that were supposedly learnt back then: staff should identify known risk factors; suicide prevention procedures should focus on the prisoner as an individual; bullying needs to be monitored better;  the cumulative effect of restrictions and punishments which drove 15-year-old Alex Kelly to kill himself in Cookham Wood YOI; and so on and so on.

The lessons are the same but what is lacking is the oversight and the stick to make sure history isn’t repeated.  There should be no time limits on the state’s duty of care.

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