Last month the Ministry of Justice released the latest safety in custody statistics on deaths and self-harm in prison. The statistics show that every five days a person in prison takes their life and across all prisons self-harm has increased for the seventh consecutive year.

In the 12 months to September 2020, a total of 282 people died in prison, around five deaths every week. Of these deaths:

• 70 deaths were self-inflicted, a decrease from 91 in the previous 12 months

• 26 deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 related, all of which took place before July and 23 of those are suspected to be due to COVID-19

• 174 deaths were classed as ‘natural causes’, although INQUEST casework shows many of these deaths were premature

• 36 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, 27 of which are awaiting classification

In the 12 months to June 2020, there were 61,153 self-harm incidents in prisons, equivalent to 167 incidents per day. This figure is up 1% from the previous 12 months.

On 20 October 2020, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons released their annual report and noted that the apparent levelling off in self-harm in the early stages of COVID-19 was not properly analysed. On 24 March 2020, prisons across England and Wales were placed under immediate lockdown. This led to widespread calls to release significant numbers of people in prison to protect their physical and mental health, however, the government’s own End of Custody Temporary Release programme was barely implemented, with fewer than 300 people released.

Severe regime restrictions were introduced following COVID-19, with 23 hours a day lockdown becoming standard practice. This was effectively prolonged solitary confinement in contravention of international human rights standards and last week the UN Special Rapporteur spoke out against these restrictions. Professor Nils Melzer labelled the measures as “extreme and inhumane” and could lead to lifelong mental health damage, especially for children in detention.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “Today’s figures show the number of deaths remain at historically high levels and self-harm across all prisons has increased for the seventh consecutive year. … Across the prison estate, men, women and children are languishing in conditions amounting to solitary confinement. The detrimental impact to physical and mental health cannot be underestimated.” Adding that “to reduce ongoing harm we need to dramatically reduce the prison population.”

Failure to Act on Deaths

On 4 November 2020, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman released their annual report for 2019/2020, which details the PPO’s work investigating deaths and complaints prior to the pandemic.

Over the year 311 investigations into deaths were started, which is the fourth highest figure in the last 10 years. Of those, 83 deaths were self-inflicted, 31 were other non-natural deaths and 19 await classification. 93% were deaths in prison.

The PPO had made 1,050 recommendations arising from deaths in custody and shared continued frustration at the number of recommendations they had to repeat from previous investigations, noting “too many of our recommendations about improvements in primary and mental healthcare are repeated year after year.” In many of the self-inflicted deaths they investigated, the PPO found that the prison’s mental health issues were not adequately addressed or that they were too severe to be managed in prison.

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons annual report also highlighted an inadequate response to PPO recommendations in 40% of prisons.

INQUEST has called for a framework which would place a duty on relevant ministers to respond to PPO recommendations and has supported proposals to put the PPO on statutory footing. Deborah Coles said: “The number of deaths in prison remain at historically high levels, with investigations finding many are preventable…Today’s report provides yet more evidence of the shameful lack of action and change.”

The PPO also highlighted their first complaint about the use of PAVA incapacitant spray, which has recently been rolled out in all adult male closed prisons despite significant concerns from human rights bodies and the public. The PPO’s investigation found it had not been used in accordance with the requirements of the policy.

If you require representation at an inquest following a death in prison or advice after an injury in prison, please contact Farleys Solicitors on 0845 287 0939 or send your enquiry by email and a member of the team will contact you.