Skip Content

Howard League blog · 15 Sep 2020

Remembering deaths in custody

I have been going through my records of deaths in custody. I have kept a careful record of every single person who has died in prison in England and Wales since 1988. I do it as an act of remembrance, and because as an historian by background I think it is important.

Dying in prison is a terrible death. People die from suicide, from natural causes, a few from homicide and increasingly from ‘other non-natural causes’ which often means a drug overdose. Whatever the reason, it is a sad end to a life.

So many young men and some children and women are in my records. I know how they died, their birthdays and why they were in prison. I know the prison.

At the Howard League we gather the statistics and each year we publish an analysis, but these are just numbers. I have the people in my files. I am not being mawkish when I say I find some of the stories truly poignant. I sit and read how a young man tied his belt round his neck, or woman stuffed tissues down her throat, or that people die from cancer and I think that had they had better care and a healthier life they could still be alive. All these people had families who mourn them. I have been at the inquest of teenagers who have taken their own lives and seen the abject misery of a mother whose child didn’t live to see his 20s.

I have got to know some of the families and that way I have learnt about the lives, not just the deaths, of the people in my records. But mostly, I only know how they died.

My thirty two years of people who have died will be at least some kind of sad memorial of their names. Their families mourn their lives.



  • Jez says:

    I cannot help wonder out of all those deaths how many the coroner said we’re preventable. How many were down to incorrect procedures being followed, how many were caused by medical related negligence or repeated cancelled hospital appointments by the prison because they did not have enough staff. Where some one has a terminal illness to they are supposed to be able to seek companionate release but this has all but disappeared because the current executive doesn’t want to show compassion of any sort towards prisoners. Now we will see far higher numbers of prisoners dying in custody because much older people are being sent to prison. Prison cells can be damp, have mould on the walls and cold, a very risky environment for an elderly person. It is good to know that someone cares and is keeping track of all those that have died whilst in custody. Thankyou Howard League

  • Gillian says:

    So sad how can we help the inmates while there still alive before there are more deaths an permanent damage to there mental health ?
    The deaths that have happened need to be remembered by not dying in vain they have to make a difference

  • yvonne smith says:

    This is so sad, I shed tears for these poor souls and those that mourn for them.

  • Phil Martin says:

    This is a beautifully and appropriately worded piece.

    The current prison crisis, on top of crisis, has led to the highest recorded levels of suicide, self-harm & personal mutilation, this is alongside worsening conditions caused by hospital delays & poor mental health provision.

  • Jasmine Rawlings says:

    Prisons need to be about rehabilitation and compassion for criminals as well as victims of crime. Most people who end up in prison have already had troubled lives. We could and should offer restorative justice in most cases – harder work but much more worthwhile and impactful for victims, prisoners and to stop reoffending.

    • Wendy Stott says:

      A different approach is required. Locking people in cells isn’t the right solution for most convictions, some yes, but the deterrent to crime has become too commonplace to work, it doesn’t rehabilitate, or redress the crime. It is a too simplistic, and base, a response.
      There really isn’t a benefit to society for many sentences. The alternative though requires thought and investment.

  • Christine Oliver says:

    This has brought me to tears. Simple and poignant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tagged with

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation