Monday, October 18, 2004

Prison suicides soar as jails hire 'babysitters'

UK: Prison officers are being taken off suicide watch and replaced by unqualified 'babysitters' because the system is overwhelmed by an epidemic of self-harm. [?]

[Self harm due to prison conditions? If that's the case it is not self harm at all it's self harm induced by prison conditions.]

Prison reformers and the prison officers' union have written to the Home Office to express their concern that the replacement staff will be unable to cope as the crisis deepens in Britain's overcrowded jails.

Uniformed 'operational support staff' are used in a variety of roles, often to cover for fully trained officers at night and act as little more than babysitters. But this is the very time when prisoners, locked in their cells, are most at risk of killing themselves.

The Howard League's director Frances Crook said: 'If these cost-cutting proposals go ahead, the death toll could be higher. It is also putting an intolerable burden on staff, who are not trained, supervised or paid to accept it.'

Suicide is a particularly acute problem in women's prisons, where 13 inmates, [prisoners], have killed themselves so far this year. In some busy women's prisons, one in 10 inmates, [prisoners], is on suicide watch. Two female prisoners killed themselves last week alone.

Kathryn Jones, 19, who was facing attempted murder charges, died after guards discovered her hanging in her cell at Brockhill prison, Worcester, on Friday morning. Jones had not been assessed as high-risk and was therefore not even on suicide watch. The spate of deaths at New Hall prison in West Yorkshire continued, with Mandy Pearson, 37, last week becoming the third woman found dead there in the past six months.

A 14th woman is still in a coma after being cut down at Holloway earlier this year. Last year, a record 14 women killed themselves in prison.

Ten years ago, suicides were almost unheard of in women's prison, with just one woman killing herself in 1994. Now there are as many as 1,500 incidents of self-harm a year.

But the problem is not confined to the women's prison estate: more than 60 men have also killed themselves in prison this year.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPC) last week announced an investigation into the death of a 31-year-old remand inmate, [non convicted prisoner], at Shrewsbury prison, the sixth man to take his life at the institution in the past year.

Marc David Keeling appeared before North Staffordshire magistrates on 28 August, accused of burglary. He was found hanging in his cell four days later, a day before he was due to appear before the court again.

The IPCC commissioner for the West Midlands region, John Crawley, said: 'It is important for the family of anyone who dies in the custody of the state that a robust and timely investigation into the death is carried out.'

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Officers Association have written to prisons minister Paul Goggins and Prison Service Director General Phil Wheatley to demand that healthcare professionals and fully trained prison officers retain responsibility for suicide prevention.

[Well it doesn't seem like they're doing a good job?]

Colin Moses, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, said: 'When a prisoner dies in custody, it has a devastating effect on individual officers and wider staff morale. It is unfair to expect support staff to take on this kind of work just to cut costs.'

[Imagine the devastating effect on the individual prisoner who prepares to die in custody and their families after they die? Why doesn't that suggest prisons are not fit places for people?]

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said support staff would usually only be expected to fill out observation forms, which was not seen as a highly skilled task. Any medical or risk assessment would still be carried out by skilled professionals.

'They do receive training on how to monitor people on suicide and self-harm watch and how to reach help in the case of an emergency,' she added.

By Martin Bright posted 18 October 04


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