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What is Behind the Rise in Self-Harming Prisoners?

By Principal Lawyer, Abuse and Disease Teams

A disturbing rise in self-harming has been discovered among prisoners on indefinite sentences, but what is beneath the surface of these statistics?

Figures compiled by the Prison Reform Trust for the Ministry of Justice have revealed that there were a shocking 2,537 incidents of self-harm among people serving imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences in the UK.

Peter Dawson, Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the figures show “the growing toll of despair” IPP sentences have on prisoners and their families.

In a recent speech to UK prison governors, Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, said: "A significant number of IPP prisoners who are still in jail after having served their full tariff who need to be given hope that they can contribute positively to society in the future.”

IPP sentences were introduced in 2005 by the Labour government and were originally designed for serious violent and sexual offenders. However the use of the sentences became much more widespread than the Government had ever anticipated and at their peak around 6000 prisoners were on IPP sentences. Once on an IPP sentence release after serving a minimum tariff is not possible without the prisoner first demonstrating to the Parole Board that they are no longer a risk to the public before they can be released.

IPP sentences were discontinued in 2012 by then-Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who called IPPs a “stain” on the criminal justice system that make it impossible for prisoners to prove they’re no longer a risk. The European Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2012 that IPP’s breached the human rights of three prisoners on IPP’s who took their case to Strasbourg. And yet thousands of inmates are still waiting to be released. Of those still serving IPPs, 3,300 have served more than the minimum sentence they were given, while 400 have served at least five times the minimum sentence they received.

A big part of the problem appears to be resources, in that prisoners are waiting much longer than ever anticipated to be reviewed by the Parole Board. Combined with an ever growing prison population of over 85,000 and further cuts to the prison budget of £600m by 2019 – 2020, this is a potentially toxic combination which can further exacerbate already vulnerable prisoners’ mental health problems including incidences of self-harm.

In these past four years the rate of self-harming serving IPP sentences in England and Wales has increased by 50 per cent.

The worry is that unless radical measures are implemented to tackle the funding crisis in our prisons that incidences of self-harm are not going to decrease any time soon.

Kim Harrison is Slater and Gordon’s national practice development leader for human rights.

The human rights solicitors at Slater and Gordon are dedicated to challenging discrimination, protecting the rights and freedoms of our clients and representing people who believe their human rights have been violated.

For a free consultation call us on freephone 0800 916 9046 or, alternatively, you can contact us online and we’ll call you.

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