Reduction of suicides in prison urgently required
Prisons must improve how they risk assess, monitor and care for prisoners to help prevent suicides, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman has recommended.
Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Nigel Newcomen has today published two reports on lessons to be learned from PPO investigations into custodial suicide.
The PPO independently investigates the circumstances of all deaths that occur in prisons in England and Wales, and advise in ways to improve safety. Additionally, they investigate complaints from those held in prison.
They have reported that recently there has been a sharp increase in self-inflicted deaths in recent months – in 2014/2014 there were 89 self-inflicted deaths in prison, an increase of 71 per cent on 2012/2013 when there were 52.
The first report, Learning from PPO investigations: risk factors in self-inflicted deaths in prisons used information from investigations into 361 such deaths between 2007 and 2013.
The report examined the characteristics of those who died in the 72 hours prior to their deaths and the prisons’ approaches to assessing and managing risk.
Various groups of prisoners were looked at but the findings about the assessment and management of their risk were similar.
It was found that prison staff often placed more weight on judging how the prisoner seemed or ‘presented’ rather than on indications of known risk even when episodes of self-harm had occurred recently.
Newcomen said: “While I recognise the challenges facing busy prison staff and that my investigations have the benefit of hindsight, too often we find that assessments of risk of self-harm place insufficient weight on known risk factors and too much on staff perceptions of the prisoner’s behaviour and demeanour.
“While the professional judgment of staff is an essential ingredient in ensuring safety in custody, better staff awareness, consideration and training about risk factors could improve safety in custody”.
The second report, Learning from PPO investigations: Self-inflicted deaths of prisoners on ACCT looked at 60 investigations where the prisoner was being monitored under the Prison Service suicide and self-harm prevention procedures - the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork Plan (ACCT) - at the time of their death.
At any one time around 2 percent of the prison population are on ACCT monitoring, and when implemented properly, ACCT provides a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary framework to address the underlying cause of a prisoners’ distress.
The report found that the ACCT process was not correctly implemented or monitored in half the cases in the PPO test sample.
Newcomen added: “Nearly a decade after the introduction of ACCT which saw self-inflicted deaths in custody fall, such deaths have risen sharply in recent months.
"It is too early to be sure why this rise is occurring, but the personal crisis and utter despair of those involved is readily apparent, as is the state’s evident inability to deliver its duty of care to some of the most vulnerable in custody.
“Learning the lessons from these two reports ought to help the Prison Service improve the implementation of ACCT and ensure greater safety in custody. However, given the repeated weaknesses in practice we identify and the rising toll of self-inflicted deaths, I believe it is also now necessary for the Prison Service to review and refresh its safer custody strategy in general and ACCT in particular”.
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