In the sixth annual report published this week from the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, the outgoing inspector Nigel Newcomen said that the statistics on deaths in prison, combined with high levels of violence and incidents of significant disorder, indicate a prison system 'still very much in crisis'.
Mr Newcomen, who is responsible for independent scrutiny of deaths in custody in UK prisons, said that the refusal of prisons under pressure to learn from their mistakes prevents effective action to improve. This issue, he said, is not knowledge about failure, but acting on that knowledge. He also said government reform will only succeed if there is a general overhaul of prison safety.
With his report showing an 11 per cent increase in prison suicides and 19 per cent more fatal incidents, Mr Newcomen said problems were 'significant and systemic' and that any reform will founder if it is not first focus on improving safety.
He said that as he leaves office, he regretted only being able to report limited improvement in prison safety and conditions during the past year, which he described as a 'uniquely challenging and dispiriting period'.
Mr Newcomen admitted that the number of suicides in prison last year was still 'unacceptably high', caused by 'a tragic culmination of individual crisis for which there can be a myriad of triggers'.
He also mentioned vital themes emerging from the PPO investigations that must be acted upon, including the pervasiveness of mental ill-health and an epidemic of new psychoactive drugs. He said that a safety net of effective suicide prevention work is essential, although there were currently repeated failings in these procedures.
This report clearly indicates that the Government is failing people often at their most vulnerable by not having sufficient safety procedures in place to protect them from harm. The failures of our prisons reflect our failings as a society to respect people's rights. I can only hope that ministers pay heed to Mr Newcomen's comments, which clearly result from his deep-seated concern about the way our prisons are run.
Figures from 2016-17 show that fatal incidents investigated in prisons increased 19 per cent on last year, with suicides up from 104 to 115. Figures also highlighted:
- Four apparent homicides, a decrease from six the previous year
- Investigations into three deaths of immigration removal estate residents, the same as the previous year
- 16 deaths classified as ‘other non-natural’ (usually drug related)
- More prisoners had their complaints upheld
Complaints received increased by 5 per cent, up from 5,010. 39 per cent of investigations by the PPO into complaints were in favour of the complainant, up from 23 per cent in 2011-12. The largest number of complaints involved lost, damaged and confiscated property.