Monday, September 6, 2004

Concern as UK prison suicides hit record level

UK: More prisoners took their own lives in English jails in August than in any other month since records began, prison reformers said today.

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) drew attention to Home Office figures showing 14 men died of self-inflicted injuries last month, bringing this year's total to 70. This does not include 14-year-old Adam Rickwood, who died in a secure training centre in County Durham. He is thought to be the youngest person to die in custody in the UK.

Juliet Lyon, director of the PRT, said numbers remained worryingly high. There were 94 such cases last year, and 95 in 2002, a record number in recent years, she said.

Six of the men who died had yet to be sentenced and most were in local prisons.

Ms Lyon said: "Local prisons have to deal with a high turnover of prisoners going backwards and forwards to local courts. A lot of prisoners are on remand awaiting trial and sentencing.

"It's difficult for staff to identify those prisoners that are at high risk, particularly in the first few days when they are feeling anxious and isolated.

It's vital these people are identified and monitored carefully." She added that 20 per cent of men and 40 percent of women entering custody had previously attempted suicide.

"This tragic series of deaths presents a bleak picture of summer in our overcrowded, under-staffed jails.

It's clear that lack of court diversion schemes and patchy mental health, drug treatment and bail support provision in the community have pushed more vulnerable people into custody, said Ms Lyons.

"How long can we expect the Prison Service to struggle to respond to people in such severe distress?"

Ms Lyons said low staffing levels during the summer, due to prison officers taking annual leave, were likely to have an impact on prison suicide rates.

"There's less staff around making it more likely that prisoners are locked in their cells, which increases the pressure on them."

The government claims new figures show it is meeting its target to bring young offenders to justice more quickly.

In 38 of 42 criminal justice areas in England and Wales the time from arrest to sentence met or exceeded the 71-day target. The average for April-June 2004 was 63 days, the 12th consecutive quarter below the target.

In magistrates' courts, the average time from arrest to sentence was 56 days - down two days from the previous quarter.

The youth justice minister, Paul Goggins, said: "This is a great achievement and a model example of criminal justice agencies working together to bring offenders to justice.

"I am encouraged by the high number of criminal justice areas that have now met or exceeded the target of 71 days."

By Just Us posted 6 September 04


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