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Howard League blog · 13 Apr 2017

How to reduce the death toll in prisons

Yesterday I attended a roundtable meeting to discuss prison safety convened by the prisons minister, Sam Gyimah. It brought together the key experts in prison safety, from NHS to voluntary groups, from the Ministry of Justice officials to academics. The people missing were former prisoners or serving prisoners and staff.

The stated purpose of the event was to discuss how to improve processes that prevent suicide and self-harm. Goodness only knows, we really need to act, urgently. Someone dies by suicide in a prison every three days and the self-injury rate is creating a blood bath.

My concern is that the ministers and officials are resembling frightened rabbits in the headlights of evidence of overwhelming distress in prisons. So, they are looking at improving processes, like the forms that follow people identified as being at risk of taking their lives.

Don’t get me wrong, processes and procedures matter. But, that is not what saves lives. There are two things that need to be done to reduce the death toll in prisons.

The obvious issue is that too many people are in prison. We should reduce the population by at least a half.

Firstly, the obvious issue is that too many people are in prison. Too many are sent there and they stay for too long. This is the big challenge that ministers must deal with but are steadfastly refusing to address.

Until we get the sheer numbers down we will continue to have deaths, self-injury and violence. Prisons cannot cope with this level of overcrowding. We should reduce the population by at least a half.

Secondly, prisons should be places of justice. The values that underpin incarceration must change.

We need a radical change in attitude so that prisons deliver justice and fairness. That is partly about procedures, but more importantly it is the fundamental ethics and purpose of prison that must change.

Injustice and unfairness are embedded in prisons today. Capricious and bureaucratic adjudications are symptomatic of a penal system that is unjust, is seen to be unjust, and fosters a sense that people are treated unfairly. If prisons cannot behave well, how can they expect their captives to behave well?

People emerge from prison with damaged mental and physical health and a deep feeling of injustice. Surely what we want is people to come out of an incarcerative experience ready to take their place in the world, feeling they have atoned for the wrong they did, and that they have experienced justice.

Nothing, but nothing could be further from the prison system we have today.


  • Jez says:

    Spot on. The challenge is to attack their deep routed desire to define a prison as place’s people are sent to be punished. I noticed this in some of Ms Truss’s statements. Prison is the punishment, not a place where people receive punishment. They are two different things. Loss of liberty which in itself is a serious punishment. Yet in Her Majesties’ prisons there can be a toxic atmosphere. This atmosphere causes great distress to the most vulnerable. Unless you address that people will continue to die. I was sad to read that no former prisoners were at the meeting. Why! That’s so vital and necessary to challenge the ministers who appear to only want to be ‘seen to be doing’ something

  • Mary Kean says:

    Absolutely agree. Shame, missed opportunity to involve serving, former prisoners, their families and staff.

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