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29 Apr 2021

Howard League responds to prison safety statistics

The number of people dying in prison has risen by 42 per cent over the last year as jails across England and Wales have been hit by the spread of Covid-19, official figures seen by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal today (Thursday 29 April).

A statistical bulletin, published by the Ministry of Justice, shows that 408 people died in prison custody in the year to the end of March 2021 – a significant rise compared to the 287 who died during the previous 12 months. They included 79 people who lost their lives through suicide.

The numbers rose most significantly during the first three months of 2021, when 154 people in prison died. This is the highest death toll ever recorded over a three-month period in prisons in England and Wales.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Prisons have been largely forgotten in this pandemic, but today’s figures reveal the devastating impact of Covid-19 on people living and working behind bars.

“A prison is the grimmest place to die. Hundreds of families are grieving. Thousands more have been denied the chance to see their loved ones. Tens of thousands of people have been held in overcrowded conditions or solitary confinement for months on end. The wider effect that this will have on communities will only become clear in the years to come.

“After an alarming spike in Covid cases at the beginning of this year, more recent figures indicate that infections are falling. It is time for restrictions to be eased safely and swiftly, and for sensible policies that ensure fewer people are put in harm’s way if we see such a crisis again.”

The bulletin states that prisons recorded 55,542 incidents of self-injury in the 12 months to the end of December 2020, at a rate of one every nine-and-a-half minutes. This represents an overall reduction of 13 per cent compared to the previous 12 months, although the number of incidents recorded in women’s prisons rose slightly.

Over the same period, prisons recorded 21,489 assaults – a 34 per cent reduction on the figures for the previous 12 months.

Throughout the reporting period, prisons were running severely restricted regimes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tens of thousands of people have spent hours on end inside their cells, often in conditions of solitary confinement.

The Howard League has published briefings showing the impact that the restrictions have had on people in prison, including children and young adults.

The safety in custody figures were published alongside another statistical bulletin showing that the number of people held in prison on remand has risen by 22 per cent over the past year.

At the end of March 2021, there were 12,262 people in prison awaiting trial or sentence – the highest number at that point of the calendar year since 2011.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Howard League and another charity, Centre for Mental Health, worked together on a joint programme on preventing people losing their lives through suicide in prison. Further information about the programme can be found on the Howard League website.
  3. Children in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic, a briefing by the Howard League, can be downloaded from the charity’s website.
  4. Young Adults in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic, a briefing by the Howard League, can be downloaded from the charity’s website.
  5. All Howard League correspondence and materials about the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system can be found on the charity’s website.
  6. The Ministry of Justice statistical bulletin, Safety in custody quarterly: update to December 2020, can be found online.
  7. The Ministry of Justice statistical bulletin, Safety in the children and young people secure estate: update to December 2020, can be found online.
  8. The Ministry of Justice statistical bulletin, Offender management statistics quarterly: October to December 2020. can be found online.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

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