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'Six prisoners die in our jails each week'

Charity report reveals 'indefensible levels of neglect and despair'

PRISON deaths in England and Wales are at a record high, with six being reported every week, a damning investigation revealed today.

The charity Inquest exposed “indefensible levels of neglect and despair” in prisons that campaigners have branded a "national scandal."

In the 12 months to September last year there were 308 deaths in prison, according to figures Inquest obtained from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Ninety of these were suicides — one every four days — while 158 were due to natural causes, raising concerns about “serious failures in healthcare.” Two inmates were murdered, and 56 other deaths are still “awaiting classification.”

Inquest, which supports families during coroners’ hearings, said there were “dangerous, long-standing failures” in prisons linked to “historically high levels of deaths in custody.”

The charity said that within the prisons system there had been “repeated” safety failures with mental and physical healthcare, communication systems, emergency responses, drugs and medication.

The lack of government action on official recommendations was leading to preventable deaths, Inquest said.

Charity director Deborah Coles said: “This report exposes indefensible levels of neglect and despair in prison.

“Officials and ministers repeat the empty words that ‘lessons will be learned'. Yet the recommendations of coroners, the prison ombudsman and inspectorate are being systematically ignored. This is a national scandal.”

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) echoed the concerns. National chairman Mark Fairhurst said: “Our prisons are under-resourced and understaffed, and staff are not adequately trained to deal with prisoners with complex mental-health issues.

“All too often staff are expected to look after people who should be housed in secure mental-health units within our communities.

“The government needs to invest in all aspects of mental health to ensure the correct level of care is available within the criminal-justice system.”

The findings listed a string of recommendations to improve safety and prevent more deaths including:

  • a watchdog to monitor and enforce the implementation of recommendations from investigations,

  • inquests and inquiries on state-related deaths,

  • a “significant” reduction in the number of people behind bars, and

  • more resources for health and welfare services.

Ms Coles said bereaved families faced a “struggle for truth, justice and change,” due to problems in getting legal aid for representation.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Centre for Mental Health produced their own report on deaths in prison and concluded: “The need for urgent action is clear.”

Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer said: “Far too many prisoners are self-harming and it’s one of the reasons we introduced the key worker scheme in 2018, supported by the recruitment of 4,400 extra prison officers, so that every offender can get dedicated support and have someone to talk to.”

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