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AUSTERITY cuts to the prison service have contributed to an alarming long-term rise in prisoner suicides, prison officers’ union POA said today.
Responding to a BBC Newsnight report highlighting a suicide rate over 10 years running at 220 per cent higher than earlier decades, the union said that “draconian” year-on-year budget cuts had resulted in 86,000 years of prison officer experience leaving the service.
Newsnight found that while prison suicides had averaged at 80 per year in the last decade — 10 times the level prevalent in the outside population — the specialist training aimed at preventing them was not being delivered to enough prison officers.
Inadequate training had been identified as an issue in seven out of every 10 inquests into such deaths since 2016, it revealed.
Yet in 2019 there were 20 prisons in which officers received no refresher training at all.
Emphasising that suicide and self-harm among prisoners was “a very complex subject,” the POA said that Ministry of Justice cuts had left officers without the time to build relationships with the people in their care.
There had also been a dramatic increase in the number of people with demanding and complex mental health issues being sent to prison – partly also because of budget cuts in community-based services.
POA general secretary Steve Gillan said: “It would have been good if the BBC had approached this union to seek the opinion of the rank-and-file officers who work day in, day out to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
“Every death in our prison system is an absolute tragedy for the family and friends of those who become so low that they feel the only way out is suicide.
“It also has a massive emotional impact on our members, it leaves scars and doubts for our members, some of whom never recover.”
Mr Gillan said that it would require “significant investment” from the government to undo the damage done by austerity and build an environment in which “staff feel valued, and prisoners feel supported not only to address their offending behaviour but supported as individuals.”
A prison service spokesperson said: “Self-inflicted deaths in prisons are at their lowest since 2012 and we have worked closely with health providers to reduce them further by improving support for those at risk.”
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