Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:21 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 12:21 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, in this debate, for which I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, I wish to focus on one aspect only—the impact of overcrowding on self-inflicted deaths.

The number of self-inflicted deaths has risen sharply in recent years. In the year to June 2017, for example, there were 97 suicides. This was a slight fall from the previous year’s figure of 107 but a steep rise from the 53 reported in 2012. People in prison are between five and 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. This number is far too high. It is also important to note in relation to this the number of incidents of self-harm. There were nearly 40,000 incidents reported last year, up 24% on the previous year.

Overcrowding in prisons and the shortage of prison staff impact on the safety of prisoners, especially the vulnerable, in a number of ways. For example, there are fewer staff available to keep an eye on prisoners and especially to develop enough of a relationship with them to notice when something is seriously amiss. There is less time to observe any change of mood or to interact with them. Prisoners interviewed about the situation said that it was very difficult to speak to their personal officer as they were always far too busy. This is further accentuated by the loss of experienced staff and the advent of new staff without the necessary experience and training to look for signs of distress. Vulnerable prisoners need to be able to trust staff enough to confide in them when they feel suicidal. They can do that only if there is some face-to-face contact.

Overcrowding also means that there are fewer education opportunities, workshops, teachers, healthcare resources or resettlement and support services for the size of the population the prison holds, resulting in prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells. It means they are unable to go to classes or to engage in other activities to help them cope, including being able to speak on the phone to loved ones. It means that prisoners are more likely to miss their regular health checks because of a lack of prison staff to escort them.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s annual report for 2016-17 said that,

“suicide prevention procedures are still badly in need of updating and streamlining, without which I continue to question their fitness for purpose”.

Overcrowding also means that whenever a risk issue arises there will be total lockdown of the prison for 23 hours, increasing the sense of isolation of prisoners.

It is a terrible sadness when someone commits suicide, a tragedy which is felt very grievously by the family and friends of the person concerned. When a person is in prison the state has a particular responsibility to do all it can to ensure that they do not develop a state of mind where suicide is what they are tempted to do. Prison can lead to a sense of isolation, mental fragility and a feeling of hopelessness. For the reasons that I have outlined very briefly, the present overcrowding makes the situation much worse and is totally unacceptable.