Rise in prisoner suicides shows prisons in crisis as whistleblowers threatened with dismissal

An investigation by the Guardian newspaper has revealed that a distinct pattern of failings has contributed to more than six suicides of prisoners a month on average; between January last year & 2 October this year, 134 inmates took their own lives. The Prison Service ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, said the deaths are ‘utterly unacceptable’, and that his recommendations to save future lives were being ignored. Among other things, Newcomen called for ‘more resources being applied’.

While the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP has repeatedly denied there being any pattern to the rise in suicides in prisons, the Guardian investigation revealed several key themes: failures in risk assessment, lack of training for prison staff, inadequate monitoring post-risk assessment, as well as insufficient communication with families (especially in the case of vulnerable young adults).

According to figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform, some institutions have seen a reduction in staffing of up to 40%, while violence has increased simultaneously, for example self harm has risen by 26% between 2009 and 2013 and violence against prison officers has risen by 45% between 2010 and 2013.

For the Guardian article, see Laville, S., Taylor, M., and Haddou, L. ‘Inmate suicide figures expose human toll of prison crisis‘, The Guardian, 17 October 2014.

Whistleblowers face dismissal

While suicides and violence have risen, starkly revealing the human cost of the crisis in prisons, prison officers in England and Wales who have raised concerns through whistleblowing have been threatened with dismissal. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Gavin Williamson, Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, condemned the silencing of whistleblowing as an ‘arrogant, high-handed attitude’, that risked creating another scandal.

After prison officers from HMP Featherstone in Gavin Williamson’s constituency approached him with their concerns about the rising level of violence, one officer was served with a disciplinary notice saying he had brought the service into disrepute. Another officer from HMP Lewes took her concerns to the Argus Sussex newspaper, giving an interview. Kim Lennon, the officer from HMP Lewes, was sent a letter by the then prison governor stating she was to be disciplined for ‘failing to meet the standards of behaviour expected of staff’.

The rise in suicides and the clampdown on whistleblowing points to a system in severe crisis. The denial of this crisis by those in charge of the system, despite the many criticisms and recommendations raised by the Prison Service ombudsman, the HMP Chief Inspector of Prisons, prison staff and others, is indicative of an attitude and policy that is both severely out of touch and cavalier.

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For the article in the Guardian, please see Laville, S. and Taylor, M. ‘Prison whistelblowers in England and Wales being threatened with dismissal‘, The Guardian, 20 October 2014.

For the article in the Argus, please see Leo, B. ‘How safe and secure is it inside Lewes Prison‘, The Argus, 14 August 2014.

For the figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform, please see ‘Public-sector prison officer numbers cut by 41 per cent‘, Media release, Howard league for Penal Reform, 20 October 2014.

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