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13 Aug 2014

Young adult prisoner suicides: Cries for help are going unheard

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to the Prison and Probation Ombudsman’s learning lessons bulletin on young adult prisoners who died by suicide, published today (13 August).

The report reveals that, between April 2007 and March 2014, 89 young people aged 18 to 24 took their own lives in prison. Two-thirds of these young people had identified mental health problems and one in five had been subjected to bullying in the month before they died.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: Every death in prison is a tragedy and almost all are preventable. This bleak compilation of tragedies sets out in shocking detail how young adults, and especially those with mental health problems, are left to suffer in institutions where violence is rife and bullying is commonplace. Prisoners are dying for want of a radio to listen to or a book to read. Cries for help are going unheard. Families’ concerns are being ignored. It is a shocking indictment of the state’s approach to people in trouble. Things will get worse before they get better, and the blame for this lies squarely with the government. Increased overcrowding driven by cowardly sentencing and ill-conceived jail closures, together with a 30 per cent cut in officer numbers, has turned prisons into warehouses where yet more people will die needlessly.”

Case studies

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s report includes 11 anonymous case studies, outlining the circumstances in which prisoners died. Below are some extracts from these case studies:

“On the third night of segregation, he asked an officer for a book, and another prisoner if he could borrow their radio, but was unable to get either. The next morning he was found hanging in his cell. He was 20 years old.”

“The next night, still in segregation, Mr D used his cell bell to call for staff on a number of occasions. He had previously received warnings for misusing the bell. However, it appears that a number of cell bells that night, including that of Mr D, were not answered for extended periods or cancelled without the officer on duty checking the prisoner. The last time he pressed the bell for assistance was just before midnight. He was not checked until almost three hours later by which time he was dead. He was 22 years old.”

“The investigation found that he was effectively forgotten during the four days he spent at the prison: very little staff interaction with him was recorded, and no manager checked on his welfare. Mr G hanged himself and was found dead by an officer unlocking prisoners in the morning.”

“His partner told a social worker she wanted to end the relationship. When he found out, Mr E was distraught. Staff were aware of the situation; he was checked and supported by a number of them but no one thought that re-opening the ACCT was necessary. In the early hours of the morning, his observation panel was seen to be blocked. Despite this an officer did not check him for another hour. By this time he had hung himself and it was too late to attempt resuscitation. He was 23 years old.”

“Mr I was too acutely unwell for a prison setting. This was especially pressing as he had now been in segregation for an extended period, which could not have helped his mental state, yet he posed too high a risk to others to be located elsewhere. The Governor of the prison intervened to ask the hospital to reconsider but was unsuccessful. In the early hours of the morning, while carrying out an ACCT observation, an officer found Mr I hanging in his cell. His exact date of birth could not be confirmed but he was either 23 or 26 years old.”

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. A copy of the report can be found on the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman website.
  3. The Howard League has called on the government to curtail the use of short prison sentences and custodial remands in its submission to the independent review into self-inflicted deaths in National Offender Management Service (NOMS) custody of 18 to 24-year-olds.


Rob Preece
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