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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 13:39 GMT
Shipman death highlights jail suicides
by Robert White
BBC News Online

Prison interior - generic
In 2003, 94 inmates in England killed themselves

The apparent suicide of Harold Shipman, the biggest mass murderer in British history, in his cell at Wakefield Prison has highlighted the worsening problem of prisoners taking their own lives.

In 2003, 94 inmates out of total of about 70,000 in England killed themselves. That compares with 73 in 2001 and 81 in 2000.

The problem is most acute among those serving life sentences, who account for between 20% and 25% of cases.

That leads David Ramsbotham, former head of the Prison Service, to question the wisdom of imposing life terms in some cases.

2003: 94
2002: 95
2001: 73

"If people have got something to aim can give them a target, which is naturally going to be their release," he told BBC News.

"Provided they do what's required of them, then perhaps you can give them some purpose in life. But somebody who's not going to get out may lack that purpose."

But the nature of the sentences accounts for only a "fragment" of prison suicides, says the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The campaigning body points out that most prisoners who kill themselves are not "lifers".

Assistant director Anita Dockley believes the uncertainty faced by remand prisoners, who account for about half of all suicides in recent years, is a bigger factor.


Overcrowded jails are dangerous places for a group that has more than its fair share of mental health and personality problems, she says.

"The crux of the issue is about regime and relationships," she says. "It may be purely the prison system that pushes them over the edge."

The prison with the worst record for 2003 is Blakenhurst, in Worcestershire, where five people killed themselves, followed by Birmingham, Nottingham, Winchester and Styal women's prison, in Cheshire, which suffered four suicides apiece.

Ms Dockley says the fact that some of the jails with the biggest problems are smaller, local ones - the kind where overcrowding has been most acute - supports the idea that pressure on resources and suicides may be linked.

Our jails create conditions in which people kill themselves
Criminologist David Wilson

Criminologist and former prison governor Professor David Wilson agrees that squeezed resources may be to blame, saying: "Our jails create conditions in which people kill themselves."

He told BBC News: "We have a high prison population; we have a great amount of bang-up in cells; we have lower types of regime facilities.

"In these types of circumstances, more people take their lives."

Whatever problems Wakefield may have, overcrowding is not among them.

Early on Tuesday morning, when Shipman was found hanged in his cell, the prison actually had room to spare.

The former GP was one of 563 prisoners in a jail with a normal capacity of 585 and an absolute maximum of 747.

The reasons for his apparent suicide seem likely to remain as elusive as those for his crimes.


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