Deaths in custody - who is to blame?

Tuesday, 07 July, 2015

Following the publication last week of the Harris Review into the self-inflicted deaths of young people in prisons in England and Wales, J M Moore has written a critical review of the findings of the inquiry. Vindicating predictions he made last October that the investigation would blame either the characteristics of people who killed themselves or prison management failures, he explains how yet again a public inquiry has failed to correctly identify the culpability of prison's inherent nature to intentionally inflict pain. He is therefore highly sceptical about the report's recommendations:

'The prison place is a site of pain. It is this deliberately inflicted pain that ultimately drives prisoners and ex-prisoners to take their own lives. Until we acknowledge this and imagine a society without prisons then sadly ‘(t)hose who are determined to kill themselves will no doubt always find a way to do so’.'

The Harris Review, published on 1 July, examined 83 self-inflicted deaths of 18-24 year olds and four children in custody between 1 April 2007 and 31 December 2013. It found understaffing to be a contributing factor in the number of self-inflicted deaths.

It makes 108 recommendations in total, including:

  • A fundamental review of the purpose of prison.
  • Prisons should be seen as a last resort for young people.
  • All young adults should spend at least eight hours outside their cell.

Since the review's completion a further 22 young adults have taken their own lives in prisons.

Lord Harris, who led the review, said, '[e]ach [death] is a failure by the state to protect the young people concerned, made all the greater because the same criticisms have occurred time and time again'. 

He went on, '[l]essons have not been learned and not enough has been done to bring about substantive change. While there is no simple and easy solution, it is clear that the prison service needs to make radical changes to protect the most vulnerable people in custody more effectively'. 

Deborah Coles, Co-director of Inquest, said, 'This important report is a devastating indictment of a flawed system that is systematically failing'.

She went on to say, 'Unless as a society we reconsider dramatically why so many young people in conflict with the law end up in prison, the deaths will continue along with the ongoing trauma for grieving families'.

We recently published the first ever UK-wide analysis of self-inflicted deaths, self harm and suicide in prisons in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The analysis formed part of the fourth volume of UK Justice Policy Review, which tracks year-on-year developments in criminal justice and social welfare across the UK.