Change of direction needed to prevent further deaths

Richard Garside
Friday, 29 May 2020

The distressing news yesterday that five prisoners killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales over six days is a reminder, if such is needed, of prison's dreadful toll of misery and despair.

According to the same report, 16 prisoners have taken their own lives since the beginning of lockdown in late March.

Close to two prisoners kill themselves each week in England and Wales in 'normal' times, if, that is, imprisonment can be considered a normal thing to impose on a fellow human being. But we live, of course, in abnormal times, and this is as true of our prisons as anywhere else.

With prisoners locked up, sometimes for more than 23 hours out of every 24 – justified on grounds of preventing the spread of covonavirus – stress and anxiety can only grow.

As Deborah Coles points out, 'Indefinite solitary confinement is the harrowing reality for men, women and children across the prison estate, with harmful consequences to both mental and physical health'. She goes on to call on the government to 'rapidly reduce the prison population. This course of action can best protect the lives of both prisoners and staff.'

So far, the government has shown no interest in doing this. While happy to follow Public Health England's advice on so-called 'compartmentalisation' – increasing single-cell occupancy, and cohorting and shielding prisoners – the government has chosen to ignore its advice on reducing the prison population by 10,000 - 15,000. By taking such a narrow view, Joe Sim and David Scott argue in this piece, the government is missing 'a golden chance to radically alter penal policy'.

We will never know how many of those 16 prisoners who have killed themselves since lockdown would still be alive today, had the government taken a more evidenced, compassionate and visionary approach to tackling coronavirus in prisons. What we do know is that if we are to prevent further deaths in the future, the government needs to change direction.

Next week we will be holding the first of three webinars, in partnership with The Open University, on socially distanced justice in the context of coronavirus. The webinars have proved very popular, with far more people registering to attend than we had anticipated. We've expanded the webinar capacity to accommodate all those who would like to attend. If you have not booked your place, you can do so here.