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Tagged In:  Mental Health

A sharp rise in death rates among female prisoners has triggered a call from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) for action to halt the increase.

PPO Nigel Newcomen outlined lessons to be learned from investigations into the deaths in a specific bulletin, emphasising the role of prison staff in helping prevent further prison suicides among women.

Better risk assessment

In 2015, for the first time since 2007, women had a higher number of self-inflicted deaths per 1,000 prisoners than men.

Figures show that in 2016, 22 women died in prison with 12 taking their own lives.
Prompted by the rise, the bulletin reviewed 19 cases between 2013 and 2016 and has identified several areas of learning, including the need for better assessment and management of risk, improving suicide and self-harm prevention procedures, giving more support to those working in offender healthcare roles, combating bullying and ensuring timely emergency responses.

Keeping women safe in prison

The PPO investigates all deaths in prison. In addition, following the recent rise and in order to prevent further deaths, the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) began a rapid information-gathering exercise calling on members of the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody, the Advisory Board on Female Offenders and IAP stakeholders for their views on how best to prevent suicide and self-harm and keep women safe.

Addressing mental health

Ministry of Justice research has shown female prisoners report poorer mental health than men with almost half reported having attempted suicide in the past.

And charities which help female prisoners - such as the Anawim project in Birmingham - say some women are breaching their parole conditions or committing further crimes so that they will be returned to jail because their lives on the outside are so bleak.
Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest, said most women who end up in prison have experienced a range of problems, such as addiction, mental illness, abusive relationships or homelessness.

The Corston Review

In 2006, Baroness Corston examined the issue following the deaths of six women at Styal prison over 13 months in 2002 and 2003. Her review, and subsequent recommendations, argued for a complete rethink of the criminal justice system’s approach to women.
In the years that followed, self-inflicted deaths among female prisoners fell to between one and three a year but rose to seven in 2015 and 12 last year.

Protecting vulnerable women in prison

The PPO said he was disheartened that some of the lessons identified to prevent women in custody from taking their own lives were a repeat of those in previous publications from his office.

“This suggests it is not knowledge that is the issue, but a lack of concerted and sustained action,” added Mr Newcomen. “While we often identify examples of excellent and compassionate care by individual [criminal justice] staff, and also recognise that prisons have been under enormous strain in recent years, there can be no excuse for not implementing essential safety arrangements that could ensure vulnerable women are better protected.”

He said he hoped that delivering safer outcomes for women in prison will be at the heart of the Government’s prison reform agenda.

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