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Prison deaths and self-harm revealed in new report

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Issue 2688
Prison can brutalise people
Prison can brutalise people (Pic: Flickr/Henry Hagnas)

Every four days a person in prison takes their own life. Levels of distress are at record high levels, with 166 recorded incidents of self-harm every day

Those shocking statistics are the background to a new report issued on Wednesday by the charity Inquest.

It details repeated safety failures including in mental and physical healthcare, communication systems, emergency responses, and drugs and medication. It also looks at the wider statistics and historic context, showing the repetitive and persistent nature of such failings.

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, said, “This report exposes indefensible levels of neglect and despair in prison. Officials and Ministers repeat the empty words that ‘lessons will be learned’. Yet the recommendations of coroners, the prison ombudsman and inspectorate are being systematically ignored.

“This is a national scandal. The personal stories of those who died show prisons failing in their duty of care towards people long failed by struggling health, education, welfare and social services.

“The system is also failing their families whose trauma over deaths is compounded by the struggle for truth, justice and change.

“In the long term, protecting both prisoners and the public from more harm will require investment in our communities, not ineffective punitive policies.”

The year 2016 was the deadliest on record when 354 people died in prisons in England and Wales. This is more than double the number of deaths a decade earlier.

Since 2016, the number of deaths have remained at historically high levels, with little sign of significant change.


In the 12 months to September 2019, there were:

•308 deaths in prison in total—six deaths every week. This is 70 more than homicides due to knife crime during a comparable period.

•90 self-inflicted deaths—one self-inflicted death in prison every four days.

•158 deaths categorised as due to “natural causes”, 58 deaths recorded as “other”, 56 of which are awaiting classification.

•eight deaths in women’s prisons.

In September 2019 a newborn baby died in HMP Bronzefield. This followed at least two other serious incidents investigated by the local NHS Trust in the previous year.

Inquest comments, “So called, ‘natural cause’ deaths as defined by the Ministry of Justice are the leading cause of mortality in prisons and are commonly attributed to the ageing prison population.

“However, Inquest’s casework and monitoring show that these non self-inflicted deaths often reflect serious lapses in healthcare and therefore, applying the term ‘natural’ is extremely problematic.”


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