Headlines: October 20th, 2005

The most overcrowded prisons in England and Wales have the highest number of suicides among inmates according to figures released today by the Howard League for Penal Reform. They show that a quarter of prisons accounted for more than half the suicides that have taken place since January 2004The League has released the statistics today ahead of a debate in the House of Lords, led by Lord Dholakia, on the impact of prison overcrowding on the rate of suicide in prison. It has also sent a detailed briefing to peers.

The figures show that 77 out of 142 prisons are overcrowded, 35 of them seriously so with at least 25 per cent more prisoners than they are designed to hold. Of the 159 suicides in prison since January 1st last year, 90 have taken place in those 35 prisons. The prison population in England and Wales had reached a record 77,702 as at the end of last week. The Howard League says the increasing number of people being locked up is having a deleterious effect on the prison service’s ability to keep prisoners in safe conditions and effectively to rehabilitate them in preparation for their release.

Of the 14 most overcrowded prisons, 11 operate as local gaols, receiving people remanded in custody as well as those sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. The majority of those on remand will not have been convicted and four out of ten of them will receive a community sentence rather than a term in prison. Over half of prison suicides are by those on remand, even though they make up less than a fifth of the total prison population.

Frances Crook, Director of The Howard League, said overcrowding was the canker at the heart of the penal system, putting the prison authorities in an impossible position and rendering them unable to provide either appropriate care to the suicidal or to undertake at least some of the rehabilitative work that was necessary if prisoners were not to re-offend on release.

The League is calling on the courts to take advantage of effective community sentences that could make a person take responsibility and live a law-abiding life.