The sickness haunting the prison system

Reduce the prison population to tackle the high numbers of prisoner self-inflicted deaths, argues Dr David Scott of The Open University

By: 
Dr David Scott
Date: 
Thursday, 02 February, 2017

There is a sickness haunting the prison service in England and Wales. This sickness, which systematically generates suffering and death, goes right to the very heart of the daily workings of prison regimes.

The Ministry of Justice has recently released figures showing that 119 prisoners took their own lives in 2016. 354 people in total died in prison in England and Wales in 2016: nearly one person a day on average.

Deaths of all kinds in prison are up by 38 per cent in just one year. There has been a 32 per cent increase in self-inflicted deaths compared with 2015. There have been 4,146 deaths in prison since 1990 and between 1990 and 2010, 1,407 prisoners took their own lives. This last figure is now of course much higher today as 500 prisoners have killed themselves in the last six years. Incidents of self-harm have also steeply risen in the last year.

It is estimated that a prisoner is recorded as self-harming in prison in England and Wales every 15 minutes, while nearly half of the current prison population – some 40,000 people – have had suicidal thoughts (what is called 'suicidal ideation').

Official guidance encourages staff in prisons to initiate the 'Assessment, Care in Custody and Treatment' (ACCT) process to provide additional interventions for prisoners judged to be at risk of suicide or self-harm. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice today, following a Freedom of Information request, showed 48,108 ACCT documents were opened in 2016.

Explaining suicide and self-harm

Explanations of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm must be situated within the intensification of the everyday pains and deprivations of prison life. Prisons are places where feelings of safety and sense of security are weak and where the dull and monotonous living and working routines of the prison systematically deprive prisoners of basic human needs.

The general lack of privacy and intimacy; the forced relationships between prisoners sharing a cell; insufficient living space and personal possessions; the indignity of eating and sleeping in what is in effect a lavatory; living daily with the unpleasant smells of body odour, urine and excrement; and the humiliation of defecating in the presence of others – all of these are profoundly painful and harmful.

Deaths in prison should not be considered as aberrations or malfunctions of the system but rather located in the daily processes of imprisonment itself. The real pains of imprisonment are not to be found just in living conditions, relationships with staff or levels of crowding, but in the denial of personal autonomy and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away.

Doing something about suicide and self-harm

Life in prison is a humiliating and unsafe experience, perpetuating fear and loathing on a daily basis. Prisons inevitably sever prisoners from past relationships, while security restrictions mean they lose control of their lives in the present. In the end, prisons are all about wasting human life and will always be places that take things away.

For many inmates, prisons are lonely, isolating and brutalising experiences. Combined with the painful awareness of the passing of wasted time, the bland mundaneness of prison life can lead to thoughts of death.

Many of the pains of imprisonment can be neither effectively ameliorated nor removed. If we wish to avoid record prisoner self-inflicted deaths in the future we must take steps now to radically reduce the prison population.