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Last Updated: Friday, 21 September 2007, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Custody death total 'too high'
Prison corridor
The figures include deaths in the UK's prisons
Many of the deaths in state custody could and should have been prevented, according to a report.

Figures from the Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody show almost 600 people die annually in prisons, police cells and other units.

Two-thirds of the deaths are natural causes, the figures reveal, the rest being self-inflicted, accidents, overdoses or killings.

The forum's chairman said the number of deaths in custody was too high.

The figures show that in the year to April 2007 there were 523 deaths in custody, the vast majority of them being natural causes in mental health hospitals.

The total figure covers deaths in prisons, police cells, secure hospitals and juvenile units and it is the first time the figures from across the criminal justice system have been brought together.

But the figures also include 73 self-inflicted deaths in prisons and a further 41 in secure hospitals.

Forum chairman John Wadham said his organisation needs more support and funds for future research.

'Low ebb'

Mr Wadham told BBC News: "The number of deaths in custody is the mark of a civilised society - and the number is too high.


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"I don't want to be in a position next year of seeing the figures rising, whatever the pressure of [prison] overcrowding."

Mr Wadham, who is also the legal director of a new equalities super-watchdog, said that many of those entering custody were vulnerable.

"We need to provide them with ways of dealing with their emotional difficulties.

"But we also need to design the cells and the equipment and supervise them so that they can't commit suicide when they're at a low ebb," he added.

Prisons Minister David Hanson said the number of suicides had fallen in the past three years as a proportion of those in jail.

However, he acknowledged the need for "greater continuity" between different branches of the criminal justice system.

The forum was established after the Joint Committee on Human Rights called for the Home Office and Department of Health to set up a multi-agency body to monitor deaths in any form of state custody.


Campaign group Inquest described the forum as "toothless" because it had no formal powers and had lacked resources in its first 18 months.

"The shocking number of deaths in custody needs more scrutiny and analysis than the Forum can provide," said Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest.

"Everyone in custody is owed duty of care by the state. The only way to ensure lessons are learned from these deaths is through effective investigations and inquests and for follow up action on their outcomes to be taken across custodial institutions."

But Mr Wadham said he welcomed a government decision to review the forum's current arrangements, saying that it needed proper resources to undertake important research.

Pauline Campbell, whose daughter Sarah died in custody, said that improvements were essential.

She said: "I think prisons are overwhelmed. They're being used as social dustbins for people who are mentally ill, drug and alcohol dependents, the homeless and so on.

"And given that we have such a high proportion of prisoners who have psychiatric difficulties, it is inevitable that these tragic deaths will occur unless action is taken to prevent this happening."


  2004/05 2005/06 2006/07
Police 36 28 Not available
Prison 199 164 162
Patients held under Mental Health Act 328 373 351
Immigration Detention 4 3 0
Approved Premises 20 17 10
Youth Custody 3 1 0
TOTAL 590 586 523

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