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Wednesday, 13 October, 1999, 18:31 GMT 19:31 UK
Action urged on jail suicides
The number of prison suicides is rising
Rising suicide levels in UK prisons will not fall unless there is firm commitment to tackle the problem, says the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales.

Suicide is Everyone's Concern, by Sir David Ramsbotham, says accountability for a reduction in suicide and self-harm must come from the top down.

He believes it is possible to reduce suicides, but only with a personal commitment from all involved, including government ministers.

Prison suicides rose by 22% between 1997 and 1998. Eighty-two prisoners in England and Wales took their own lives in 1998, compared with 68 in 1997.

Mental Health
Sir David says: "Accountability for delivering a reduction in suicide and self harm begins at the top and goes right down to the bottom.

"If this needs resources, these must be made available, but personal commitment does not commit money.

"The Prison Service has already demonstrated that such total commitment can work in its success in reducing the number of escapes from prison."


The report found that the Prison Service's strategy for reducing suicides was "fundamentally sound", but did not take into account the needs of different groups of prisoners.

Sir David also reported "serious deficiencies" in the way many prisons were applying the strategy with some officers showing a "cavalier attitude" to it.

He called for more concentration on local prisons, which tend to be vastly overcrowded and contain a mixture of remand and sentenced prisoners.

According to the Howard League campaign group report, up to two-thirds of prisoners who took their own lives in 1998 were on remand.

Nine were under 18 years old and three were women. Eleven per cent were black or Asian.

Sir David said: "Local prisons are not resourced to provide full, purposeful and active regimes for each prisoner, with the result that too many of them are left locked up in their cells for too long.

"There is no doubt that fear, uncertainty, enforced idleness and boredom are factors which cannot be disregarded when considering the reasons for suicide."

Sir David stressed that individual prison cultures could make a big impact on suicides and mental health.

Prisons with good staff/prisoner relationships were much healthier, he said, than those with a "regressive staff culture".

Mental health

The report makes 12 key recommendations, including the need for a perfomance indicator for preventing suicide, improvements in the service provided to relatives by coroner's offices and a need for a greater emphasis on mental health in prisons.

A recent Department of Health survey shows three quarters of women and 58% of men on remand have a mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety or phobias.

Sir David Ramsbotham: commitment is needed from the top down
This is more than four times higher than the national average and up to 20% higher than the rate for sentenced prisoners.

More than a fifth of male prisoners and nearly two fifths of women prisoners had attempted suicide, with a quarter of female remand prisoners having tried to kill themselves in the past 12 months.

Over one in 10 had tried to harm themselves, said the Department of Health report.

Sir David said he was confident that suicides and self harm could be reduced with good leadership and resources, but he warned that there were "no shortcuts".

The government and the Prison Service have welcomed the report and pledged their commitment to reducing suicides and self harm.

Martin Narey, director general of the Prison Service, said he would take a personal interest in reducing suicides.

He said much had been done to tackle suicides, such as promoting the use of people trained by the Samaritans to offer support to prisoners and improving cell design.

A conference is shortly being held with prisoners, the Samaritans and prison staff to see how the "listener" scheme can be taken forward.

Mr Narey added that a new NHS partnership with prisons would help improve mental health.

Mr Narey intends to form a steering group to consider Sir David's recommendations.

Prisons minister Lord Williams said he would work with the steering group.

"Deaths in prison have a great impact on families, friends, prisoners and staff.

"I am sure this report will help the Prison Service to build on the significant advances that have been made in recent years."

Deborah Coles from campaign group Inquest warned that previous reports had been left to "gather dust".

She called for more training of staff in suicide prevention and more respect for the views of families.

The BBC's Jeremy Ball: "The scheme is attracting interest from prisons all over the world"
Sir David Ramsbotham and Martin Narey on prison suicides
Deborah Coles says other reports have not been implemented
The BBC's Val Jones: "There was commitment today from the prisons minister that action would be taken"
See also:

26 Jun 98 | Health
Mental illness 'rife' in prison
25 Jan 99 | UK
Plan to cut prisoner deaths
10 May 99 | Americas
Preventing prison suicides
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