Acute levels of pain in prisons still on the rise

Matt Ford
Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The latest Safety in Custody statistical release from the Ministry of Justice shows a dramatic 43 per cent fall in self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales in 2017. This follows a record high of 122 such deaths in 2016.

This is to be welcomed. But falls in the number of self-inflicted deaths do not necessarily mean that the pain which leads to people wanting, and trying, to take their own lives has been alleviated.

Numbers of self-inflicted deaths are a sub-set of the number of prisoners who attempt to take their own lives. They are successful attempts.

Notwithstanding the fact that not everyone who attempts to take their own life intends for it to be successful, and that there is evidence that the profile of people who successfully take their own lives and those who don’t are different, we can broadly say that whether an attempt is successful depends on a variety of intervening factors. The most obvious is whether a cell mate or prison officer is there to stop you.

Because of the way the Ministry of Justice statistics are compiled, with definitions that don’t make a judgment about intent, so as to avoid waiting for the results of lengthy inquests and accident inquiries, we cannot see the trends in prisoner suicide attempts. We can observe increases in self harm incidents.

Self-harm incidents include such methods as ‘self-strangulation’ and ‘hanging’, and since 90 per cent of self-inflicted deaths are by hanging, we can be pretty certain they contain a good proportion of prisoners' attempts to take their own lives.

Self-harm incidents rose 12 per cent in the year to September 2017, the continuation of a trend stretching back to 2012. At 42,837 self-harm incidents, levels are now nearly double what they were ten years ago.

The most severe non-fatal self-harm incidents, those that require hospital attendance, rose 15 per cent between 2016 and 2017, to record highs of 3,007 incidents. This could point to continuing increases in prisoners' attempts to take their own lives. 

Whilst it is possible that prison service personnel are now successfully intervening in a greater number of attempted suicides in prisons, the statistics on self-harm suggest that the acute levels of psychological pain which lead prisoners to want to fatally, or at least severely, harm themselves are still rising.