Cuts lead to 'toxic mix of violence, death and human misery' in our prisons, says charity

More inmates died in prison last year than any time in almost 40 years.
More inmates died in prison last year than any time in almost 40 years.

Seven people committed suicide in North East jails in the prison system's worst-ever year for self-harm, new figures have revealed.

Official data published by the Ministry of Justice shows that 354 people died in prisons in England and Wales during 2016 - a rise of 38% on the previous year.

Of those, 119 were suicides. The previous high was in 2004, when 96 were recorded.

Both figures are the highest in a calendar year since current recording practices began in 1978.

Self-harm, attacks on other inmates and assaults on staff are also up, at a time of budget cuts and a record prison population.

The number of deaths per prison in the North East, with suicides in brackets, is as follows.

* Deerbolt 1 (1)

* Durham 3 (1)

* Frankland 2 (0)

* Holme House 4 (1)

* Low Newton 1 (1)

* Northumberland 6 (3)

Total 17 (7 suicides)

Today’s figures also reveal:

* 37,784 reported incidents of self-injury in prisons during the 12 months to the end of September 2016 – a 23% rise on the previous year.

* Self-injury among men rose by 30% – from 23,359 in the 12 months ending September 2015 to 30,465 in the 12 months to September 2016.

* Self-injury among women in prison fell by 2%. However, although women make up less than 5% of the prison population, women’s prisons accounted for 20% of all self-injury incidents.

* 3,372 serious assaults in prisons during the 12 months to the end of September 2016 – 28% up on the previous year. There were 25,049 assaults in total – a 31% increase.

* 6,430 assaults on prison staff – a 40% increase on the previous year. The number of serious assaults on staff rose by 26% to 761.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “More people died in prisons in 2016 than in any other year on record, and more prisoners died by suicide than ever before.

“No one should be so desperate while in the care of the state that they take their own life, and yet every three days a family is told that a loved one has died behind bars.

“Cutting staff and prison budgets, while allowing the number of people behind bars to grow unchecked, has created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery.

“The problems are clear for all to see. The Howard League is offering solutions. We have shown ministers how, by taking bold but sensible action 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.”

The Howard League and another charity, Centre for Mental Health, have been working together on a joint inquiry into preventing prison suicides.

Research, published last November as part of the inquiry, found that the increasing number of prison suicides had coincided with cuts to staffing and budgets, as well as a rise in the number of people in prison, resulting in overcrowding. Violence had increased and safety had deteriorated.

The report said prisoners were spending up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells and at the same time the imposition of prison punishments had increased.

It found that a more punitive daily regime had been introduced in prisons at the same time as the number of deaths by suicide began to rise.

Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss said: “Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have been clear that the violence, self-harm and deaths in our prisons are too high.

“I have taken immediate action to stabilise the estate by tackling the drugs, drones and phones that undermine security.

"We are also investing £100million annually to boost the frontline by 2,500 officers.

“These are long-standing issues that will not be resolved in weeks or months, but our wholescale reforms will lay the groundwork to transform our prisons, reduce re-offending and make our communities safer.”