cell doorA record number of people took their own life in prisons in England and Wales in 2016 – with self-inflicted deaths up by nearly a third year-on-year, new figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have revealed.

In all, 119 people died by suicide in 2016, 29 more than in 2015 and the highest number since records began in 1978. All but 12 of these deaths were men.

The MoJ figures also revealed that there were also a record number of incidents of self-harm – 37,784 – a rise of 23% year-on-year. 

In addition, there were also a record number of assaults, with 25,049 recorded – a rise of 31% year-on-year.

Latest figures from the MoJ show that prisons in England in Wales are 98% full with 85,058 inmates, of which 81,102 are men.

Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss said: “Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have been clear that the violence, self-harm and deaths in our prisons are too high.

“I have taken immediate action to stabilise the estate by tackling the drugs, drones and phones that undermine security. We are also investing £100 million annually to boost the frontline by 2,500 officers.

“These are long-standing issues that will not be resolved in weeks or months, but our wholescale reforms will lay the groundwork to transform our prisons, reduce reoffending and make our communities safer.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called for a reduction in the prison population: “Another record low in standards of safety should leave no one in any doubt of the need to relieve the pressure on our failing prison system. We know that the worst outcomes happen in overcrowded prisons. Reducing the population can no longer be an afterthought—it is the only realistic way to make our prisons safe in the foreseeable future.”

Professor Pamela Taylor, a forensic psychiatrist and chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ forensic faculty, said: “The fact that prison suicides are at record levels is tragic, but it is only one of the most serious consequences of the last government’s decision to cut prison staffing while prisoner numbers were rising.  

“The prison service is in crisis following a 40% cut in the number of prison officers and mental health teams are struggling to help prisoners in desperate need. In many cases there is no-one available to escort prisoners to in-prison clinics; from time to time even when a psychiatrist goes to a prisoner’s cell as there are not enough prison officers present and the cell door can’t be unlocked for safety reasons.

“Training for staff is also suffering. Health service staff can only do so much – the whole system must become more functional.”

Deborah Coles, director at INQUEST said: "This unacceptable death toll reflects the grim reality of overcrowded and dehumanising prisons and the failure to protect those in their care. INQUEST’s work with families shows first-hand the traumatic human cost these deaths inflict on generations of bereaved family members.

“Inquest after inquest highlights the same systemic failures. Countless investigations, prison watchdog reports and reviews recommend solutions to protect the health and safety of staff and prisoners that are systematically ignored. 

“This broken system cannot deal with societal problems of mental and physical ill health, addictions, poverty and housing.  A radical reduction in the prison population, investment in alternatives and a change in the nature and culture of prison so they are places of last resort and rehabilitation will better serve victims, communities and prisoners. 

“If the Government fails to act, the scandalous death toll will continue."