Five suicides in six days at prisons in England and Wales leads to fears about the restrictive regimes implemented due to COVID-19

Campaigners fear that the highly restrictive regimes, put in place to combat the spread of coronavirus, are having an impact on the mental health of prisoners across England and Wales.

As of 28 May, since the lockdown conditions were introduced on 23 March, there have been 16 self-inflicted deaths at prisons. It is believed that five inmates have taken their own lives in the last six days because of the changes put in place to limit the spread of the virus. By comparison, in 2019 there were 80 self-inflicted deaths recorded, which averages at less than two per week.

One of the most recent self-inflicted deaths was that of a 19 year old male at a young offender institution, who was 16 at the time of his offence and was brought up in care due to concerns about parental neglect.

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus include suspending prison visits, increased segregation and placing inmates on limited regimes with less than an hour spent out of their cells each day. Public Health England has said this regime will need to remain in place until April 2021. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has recently found that inmates of some prisons were spending no more than 30 minutes a day out of their cells.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, has raised the following concerns: “These deaths point to the frustration and despair of those faced with inhumane living conditions and highly restrictive regimes. Indefinite solitary confinement is the harrowing reality for men, women and children across the prison estate, with harmful consequences to both mental and physical health. Unless radical action is taken immediately we fear the worst is yet to come as the impact of the virus is felt throughout the prison estate. The government must show political courage and rapidly reduce the prison population. This course of action can best protect the lives of both prisoners and staff.”

David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary, has said: “The unusual spike in deaths in custody raises serious questions over whether the severe emergency Covid-19 regime in prisons is becoming a threat to the welfare of prisoners.”

The Public Health England modelling has shown that the spread of infection and the rate of deaths in prison has been lower than expected. To date, nine staff and 22 prisoners are known to have died.

Calls have been made to the Ministry of Justice to release people from prison in order to save lives. In April, the Ministry of Justice said that up to 4,000 prisoners who were within two months of their release date and had passed a risk assessment were eligible for the custody temporary release scheme. As of 15 May, only 57 had been released.

The Ministry of Justice has urged caution over speculating on causes of death and has expressed condolences to the families of those who have died.

Farleys has specialist teams of solicitors experienced in inquests as well as actions against detaining authorities. You can contact the team in confidence on 0845 287 0939 or by email.