Prison suicide rate linked to mental illness and neglect

holloway10:25 Thursday 22nd January 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Some worrying statistics out today about deaths of prison inmates – one third of all deaths in prison last year were a result of inmates taking their own lives. This is according to figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform. The suicide rate in UK prisons is at its worst for the last seven years. So we’re asking this morning, are prisons in this country too tough? Many saying down the years that they’re not tough enough. But are we failing to provide basic mental health care to our inmates? Should we be looking to reform and help rather than punish? Would that help? Andrew Neilson is from the Howard League. He says the problem of suicide in prison is growing.
ANDREW NEILSON: We’ve seen staffing resources reduced because prisons are making cuts like other public services. But at the same time the prison population is rising, and prison overcrowding is very acute. And one of the key barometers as to whether the prisons are in crisis is definitely deaths behind bars.
PAUL STAINTON: Well now, in a joint effort with the Centre for Mental Health, the Howard League for Penal Reform are calling for the death toll in prisons to be ended. So should we be taking more care of the health of our patients in prison? Is it right that so many are taking their own lives? Well joining me now is Noel Smith. He’s editor of Inside Time. He’s an ex-prisoner. Morning Noel.
NOEL SMITH: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: And we’ve got Frances Crook, who’s the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Frances we’ll get to in just a second. We’ve also got Andy Bell, who’s the Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health. Andy, good morning.
ANDY BELL: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Good morning Frances. We’ve got you now. Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: We had a power cut earlier and it threw everything all over the shop.
PAUL STAINTON: We’re almost back to normal. Noel first of all is I can, from somebody that’s been inside, we spoke before about this. Are things worse now than they were ten, fifteen, twenty years ago?
NOEL SMITH: Yes they are definitely. The prison system has been going backwards under the present Justice Secretary. He’s got prisoners back in uniform, taking the television off people who are in for the first night and things like that. It really is, with the budget cuts and changes in the regime and the lack of staff, our prisons are going back to the way they were before the Strangeways riots.
PAUL STAINTON: So there’s a very real possibility then that that sort of thing could happen again in the future you think?
NOEL SMITH: I don’t want to be a doom-sayer, but I’d say it’s a definite possibility. If we get a hot summer, the prisons will probably kick off.
PAUL STAINTON: Frances, aren’t prisons supposed to be tough?
FRANCES CROOK: Well the prisons are supposed to help people change their lives, so that when they come out they live a law-abiding life. That’s what we all want. Unfortunately that simply isn’t happening. The number of people who are taking their own lives by suicide, the rates of self-injury are an indication of the levels of misery and distress, but also of course the stress on staff. Because as Noel said, things are really bad in prisons now. And this news that when people come out of prison, if they’ve been caged in their cells for days on end, with actually very little food, with nothing to do all day, when they come out they’re more likely to commit another crime. So our prisons are not only responsible I think, the prison system is not only responsible for people dying, it’s also responsible for an increase in crime.
PAUL STAINTON: Why are inmates not getting exercise? Why have they not got things to do in prison Noel? What’s going on? Is it a lack of funding, a lack of staff?
NOEL SMITH: Well it’s a combination of both really. There is a lack of staff. We’ve had I think something like 16 prisons have closed down in the last three years. The staff have been made redundant. Now they’re trying to hire staff back. It’s not rocket science. If you cut down on the number of staff, put more and more vulnerable people .. and let’s not forget I think 81% of prisoners in our country have at least one recognisable mental illness .. if you put vulnerable people into that situation, and there isn’t the staff to supervise them and to watch them, then obviously you’re going to end up with a lot of suicides or self-harms as a result. Prison is not a holiday camp. It’s a brutal horrible place.
PAUL STAINTON: Andy Bell is Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health. These statistics are frightening, aren’t they? They’re almost through the roof.
ANDY BELL: They are, and I think we know from the last survey, which shockingly was done in 1997, of the mental health of prisoners, that poor mental health is the norm, not the exception among the prison population. And that is both people going to prison who are very very vulnerable anyway, who have got poor support from other services, and perhaps many of whom could be diverted to other forms of sanction for what they’ve done, and indeed people going to prison and prison being a place that breeds poor mental health if you don’t have it already. So I think those statistics are shocking, and as Frances has said, the terrible suicides recorded here are the tip of the iceberg of distress, and there is an enormous amount beneath that that we really need to respond to.
PAUL STAINTON: What needs to be done?
ANDY BELL: I think we need a range of things. First of all we need to stop sending people with serious mental health problems to prison. So diverting people when they come into contact with the police or in the courts. We need to ensure that every prison has what you might call an equivalent level of mental health care to what’s available in the community, so you get the same quality of support, whether you’re inside or outside. And then crucially if people are in prison with poor mental health, that we’re supporting people to lead good lives when they leave. So supporting with things like employment, having somewhere to live, getting health support when you leave so that it doesn’t feel like you’re being left with nothing at all, just to avoid that revolving door syndrome of people going into prison, going out and getting into trouble again and things just going round and round in circles for them.
PAUL STAINTON: Jut going to read out a few comments from people this morning. Mark says, “Having had recent experience of prison, I can tell you that people’s mental health is not a consideration to the system. I learnt nothing in my six week incarceration, and had no help whilst in there. I was denied visiting rights, and moved from Peterborough to Bedford with no warning on the first proper visiting day for my family. Can’t say I was suicidal, but there were times I was close to the edge.” says Mark this morning. Julian says, “Our jails are now run on American correction lines, some by private firms. Had to happen sadly. The rise in suicide reflects this.” However some people are saying “Prison too tough? Hardly. With all their human rights. They should be like they are abroad.” And Peter from Cambridgeshire says “Our prisons are like five star hotels. They get TVs in their cells to keep them quiet and make it easier for wardens. I saw a documentary on Russian prisons. If you’re in one of those you’d never offend again.” The five star hotels Noel.
NOEL SMITH: Well that’s absolute nonsense. It’s typical of the ill-informed members of the public to think like that. The tabloid press have been feeding them that sort of stuff for years, so it’s no wonder that people think like that. But certainly if you were in a five star hotel and it was run like a prison, you’d be asking for your money back. There are no holiday camp-style prisons. It’s nonsense.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. And we’re coming to a point it seems from what you’re saying this morning Frances that unless something is done, and done soon, there are going to be bigger problems on the horizon.
FRANCES CROOK: Well I can’t think what bigger problem you could have than an eighteen year old hanging himself in a prison cell. I don’t think it can get worse than that. I don’t know if there are going to be riots and things, and I think it’s quite difficult to riot if everybody’s locked up in their cells all the time. Things are really bad. They’re bad for prisoners, they’re bad for staff, they’re bad for the taxpayer. And they’re bad for people in the community. When prisoners come out they’re homeless. They go back onto drugs. People get hooked onto drugs when they’re in prisons because there’s an inflated market for drugs inside prisons. They are really feeding the crime problem, and young people are dying. I can’t think of anything worse than that. It is horrendous. And a government has to take action immediately. Government is responsible for what happens in our prisons, and it is the ultimate responsibility of government to care for people when they take their freedom away, and to care for the public who suffer the consequences of a failed policy. So the responsibility lies very clearly with Government to remedy this, and to save young people’s lives.
PAUL STAINTON: Frances, thank you very much. Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Andy Bell, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health. And Noel Smith, Editor of Inside Time, an ex-prisoner as well. And as Frances was saying, prisons just not fit for purpose at the moment. People in there who are not being rehabilitated, in some cases, the drug problem getting worse, people being locked up who’ve got mental problems that really shouldn’t be in there. And when they’re in there those problems get worse and worse and worse. Big problem, according to those guys, in prisons at the moment.