The Samaritans is a highly-respected charity and in my experience hardly ever puts its head above the parapet and gets involved in politics of any kind. The fact that they have gone public regarding the suicide rate in prisons shows just how bad things have become. This from their press release:-
Action is needed to tackle rise in prison suicides, says Samaritans
Samaritans is calling on the Government to recruit and retain more prison staff in the face of sharp rises in the rates of self-harm and suicide in jails. In the past year to June 2016, the self-inflicted death rate in prisons has risen by 20 per cent, self-harm is up by 27 per cent and numbers of prison staff have fallen by 25 per cent over the last six years.
Samaritans volunteers train prison Listeners to provide emotional support to prisoners who are struggling to cope. The prison Listener scheme, which began in Swansea prison, operates through a long standing partnership between Samaritans and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) who have a shared goal of reducing suicide in prison. The scheme has been running for 25 years this month in England and Wales.
Samaritans volunteers who visit their local prison to train and support Listeners, regularly witness the effects of a reduced number of prison staff on the prison regime. The suicide rate in prison is estimated to be between 7 and 12 times that of the general population and prison suicide costs the tax payer potentially between £160m and £300m a year. In the 12 months to June this year, 105 prisoners took their own lives.
Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland said: “We are concerned about the impact of the problem of low staffing levels in prisons. We believe that this problem has contributed to the rising suicide rates among prisoners and needs to be addressed. A shortage of prison staff leads to prisoners spending longer locked in their cells, reduces access to work or education which helps with rehabilitation, living conditions are poorer and it is more difficult to access healthcare. Prisoners also struggle to contact friends and family under these circumstances. Staff-prisoner relationships are vital for ensuring prisoner safety and preventing prison suicides, and these relationships cannot be built when staff are so badly under resourced.The rapidly rising rates of suicide, which is at its highest in 8 years since 2007, show that conditions in our prisons need improving.”
Samaritans is not the only organisation expressing concern. The House of Commons Justice Select Committee also suggest that low staffing levels contribute to overall declining prison safety including an increase of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assault incidents.
The Listener scheme can play a vital role in prisons’ safer custody agenda by helping to reduce self-harm and suicide. It also helps to create an ‘enabling culture’ whereby prisoners feel that it is okay to talk, which stops problems reaching a crisis which is more challenging to deal with. Talking about problems can lead to a reduction in frustration and anger, build trust between prisoners and help to create a calmer, safer environment which provides a foundation upon which the prison service can work to reduce reoffending.
Here's Frances Crook of the Howard League on the general topic of prison reform writing for the WriteYou website:-
We need penal reform before it's too late
When the newly appointed Secretary of State for Justice and Lord (note, not Lady) Chancellor appeared before the Justice Select Committee last week she indicated that legislation on penal reform would come, but just not yet.
Michael Gove spent a year consulting on his plans for reform. David Cameron made a seminal speech setting out new principles focussed on redemption and compassion. This was all very wonderful and it did help to change the public, and media, discourse. But, over that year, prisons deteriorated and community supervision that had been privatised by Chris Grayling slowly decomposed.
Things are so bad in prisons that someone takes their own life every four days. There is a record number of unexplained deaths, probably caused by a toxic cocktail of drugs. People are locked up in cells the size of a public toilet, and have to defecate in front of their cell mate, with little or no ventilation in the cell. They spend most of the day in this cell, lying on a filthy bunk in dirty clothes.
The few men (95 per cent of the prison population are men) who get any work, potter about doing a bit of cleaning on the wings for five pounds a week. There are some workshops in some prisons, operating at around half time, but very little meaningful work. Prisons seem intent on proving that work is something that pays badly and is very dull.
The number of frontline officers in prisons was cut by about a third, making prisons unsafe for staff and inmates. With little to do and no one to turn to for help, prisoners are frustrated and angry. Prisons are now dangerous places.
Quietly, there has been a recent reversal. The Ministry of Justice has launched a recruitment drive to get more staff into jails. The problem is that new staff do not stay. They do the few weeks training and once they get onto the landings and experience the challenges they leave.
Something has to be done. I don’t think that waiting for some convoluted legislation next year will do the trick. Something has to be done now. Too many people are dying, too many young men are tying a ligature round their neck in the quiet lonely night in their cell and dying by strangulation.
The Howard League developed a radical plan of action that would save lives, save the taxpayers money and deliver a safe prison system designed for a purpose. We put it together for the spending review last year. We suggested that the prison population should be cut to the level it was under Margaret Thatcher. This could be achieved by abolishing short sentences that only interrupt already chaotic lives, limit the use of custodial remands as 70 per cent of the people remanded by magistrates do not get a prison sentence, curtailing recalls, using women’s centres instead of prison, speeding up parole and ending sentence inflation.
New ministers must have a think and will always want to develop their own policies. But she just cannot take too long. Elizabeth Truss needs to take action, as prisons are in meltdown and people are dying.