We’re approaching the end of 2015, a year which has seen an unfortunate rise in the number of prisoners self-harming or taking their own lives in custody.
The Government is being called upon to act urgently to help tackle the problem in the new year as some shocking new statistics are revealed.
Prison suicides - it has been recently reported that, in the UK, every four days a prisoner takes their own life. In September, we blogged about a 64 per cent increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody.
Self-harm – there has been a 21 per cent increase in self-harm among prisoners over the last year. A very sad statistic which suggests that a growing proportion of the UK’s prison population is suffering from mental illness.
Long waits for hospital treatment – it has been revealed that 343 prisoners, who had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and were at serious risk of self-harm, waited more than 14 days to receive treatment in hospital.
Care plans not being implemented – any prisoner who is identified as being at risk of harming themselves are cared for under a prisoner-centred care planning system known as the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork process (ACCT). Prison staff should open an ACCT plan for any prisoner if they observe behaviour – or receive information – that indicates they are at risk of harming themselves.
It was therefore shocking to find out that 60 per cent of prisoners who committed suicide this year did not have an ACCT plan, according to a response to a parliamentary question asked by Luciana Berger MP earlier this month.
Human Rights Legislation
Under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (incorporated into UK domestic law by way of the 1998 Human Rights Act), the State is under an obligation to protect the right to life, and to conduct an effective and proper investigation into all deaths resulting from a failure to protect that right to life.
In the case of prisoners with mental health problems, Article 2 imposes a duty upon the prison system to take all reasonable measures to address any risk of a prisoner self-harming or taking their own life.
Earlier this year Slater and Gordon represented the family of Craig Chappell, who tragically took his own life at just 35 years of age whilst in custody at HMP Humber. Craig’s family had alerted prison staff about Craig’s mental state on many occasions. He self-harmed and an ACCT document was opened, requiring observations and welfare checks. The next day, the ACCT was closed, after just 24 hours. Craig was later found hanging in his cell. At the inquest, the jury found that prison failings contributed to Craig’s death, a decision which shows how our human rights legislation exists not to protect vulnerable people but also to hold public bodies to account when their obligations under the Act have not been met.
As Luciana Berger told The Independent, “Every four days, someone in prison takes their own life. If our society is facing a mental health crisis then the situation within our prisons is all the more grave."
In the same interview, a Government spokesman said: “Every death in custody is a tragedy and we recognise there are improvements to be made. We are working hard to make sure all prisoners with mental health problems have the support they need.”
We know that the Government are keen to improve prisons, so looking after the most vulnerable people in custody would be a good place to start.
Kim Harrison is the National Practice Development Leader for Human Rights at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK and has represented many families of prisoners who have committed suicide in prison, both at inquests and in associated civil claims under the Human Rights Act.