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13 Feb 2017

Prisons need profound culture change to prevent loss of life from suicide

Prisons need a profound culture change to prevent people from losing their lives through suicide, according to a report published today (Monday 13 February) by Centre for Mental Health and the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Preventing suicides: staff perspectives, the last of four reports from an investigation into suicide in prisons by the two charities, finds that distress, self-harm and suicide attempts are too often seen as manipulative rather than signs of need and vulnerability among prisoners.

Staff shortages, a ‘toxic’ working environment and a failure to recognise the traumatising impact of prison for both prisoners and staff all contribute to an unsafe environment.

The report is based on interviews with health care staff working in prisons and those reviewing clinical care following suicide deaths. Its publication follows the release of figures showing that 119 people lost their lives to suicide in English and Welsh prisons in 2016.

The report finds that the majority of prisoners have multiple and complex needs including poor mental health, but many do not get access to mental health support. It concludes that prisons need to shift from a primarily punitive approach to a culture centred on wellbeing, recovery and rehabilitation.

The report sets out three vital steps to improve safety and wellbeing. First, all prisons need to adopt a ‘stepped care’ approach in which the whole system is responsible for a prisoner’s wellbeing and mental health support is available at every level of need. Second, all prison staff need training and support to support prisoners’ wellbeing, and look after their own. And third, robust risk assessments are essential when a person arrives at a prison.

Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive of Centre for Mental Health, said: “Every loss of life in prison is a tragedy for everyone involved. Our research shows that we need a new approach to suicide prevention in prisons by putting safety and wellbeing at the heart of our criminal justice system.

“We need to bring about a culture change in prisons that puts safety top of the agenda, that understands the traumas both prisoners and staff too often live with, and that means people get the right help when they need it.

“Making the changes set out in our report will save lives and enhance the rehabilitation of all prisoners.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Overcrowding and understaffing in prisons is placing intolerable stress on staff and prisoners, and putting lives at risk.

“No one should be so desperate while in the care of the state that they take their own life. Staff who work in prisons should never feel so under pressure that they cannot stop and listen.

“As prison suicides reach record levels, it is time for action. By taking bold but sensible steps to reduce the number of people in prison, we can save lives and prevent more people being swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair.”

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.
  1. Preventing suicides: staff perspectives can be viewed online.
  1. The Howard League and Centre for Mental Health are working together on a joint programme on preventing people from dying by suicide in prison. Further information about the programme can be found online.


Andy Bell
Deputy Chief Executive
Centre for Mental Health
Mobile: +44 (0)7810 503638

Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955
ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system
For enquiries outside normal office hours, please call +44 (0)7918 681094.

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