Action is needed to tackle rise in prison suicides, says Samaritans

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The charity is calling for more prison staff as suicides rise to their highest rate in eight years

15th September 2016 by Molly Millar 0 Comments

Suicides amongst UK prisoners have increased by 20 per cent in the last year at a time of falling prison staff numbers.

Anti-suicide charity the Samaritans has said prison staff have fallen by a quarter over the last six years, while self-harm amongst prisoners is rising. As well as those who took their own lives in the last year an additional 27% of prisoner hurt themselves on purpose.

Samaritans' volunteers train prison listeners to provide emotional support to prisoners who are struggling to cope. The prison listener scheme, which began in Swansea prison, operates through a long standing partnership between Samaritans and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), with both sharing a goal of reducing suicide in prison. 

Staff-prisoner relationships are vital for ensuring prisoner safety and preventing prison suicides, and these relationships cannot be built when staff are so badly under resourced - Ruth Sutherland

Samaritans volunteers who visit their local prison to train and support listeners regularly witness the effects of a reduced number of prison staff on the prison regime.

The suicide rate in prison is estimated to be between 7 and 12 times that of the general population, and prison suicide costs the tax payer between £160m and £300m a year. In the 12 months to June this year, 105 prisoners took their own lives.

Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland said: “We are concerned about the impact of the problem of low staffing levels in prisons. We believe that this problem has contributed to the rising suicide rates among prisoners and needs to be addressed.

“A shortage of prison staff leads to prisoners spending longer locked in their cells, reduces access to work or education which helps with rehabilitation, living conditions are poorer and it is more difficult to access healthcare. Prisoners also struggle to contact friends and family under these circumstances.

“Staff-prisoner relationships are vital for ensuring prisoner safety and preventing prison suicides, and these relationships cannot be built when staff are so badly under resourced.”

“The rapidly rising rates of suicide, which is at its highest in eight years since 2007, show that conditions in our prisons need improving.”

Samaritans is not the only organisation expressing concern. The House of Commons Justice Select Committee has also suggested that low staffing levels contributes to overall declining prison safety including an increase of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assault incidents.

The listener scheme can play a vital role in prisons’ safer custody agenda by helping to reduce self-harm and suicide. It also helps to create an enabling culture whereby prisoners feel that it is okay to talk, which stops problems reaching a crisis which is more challenging to deal with.

Talking about problems can lead to a reduction in frustration and anger, build trust between prisoners and help to create a calmer, safer environment which provides a foundation upon which the prison service can work to reduce reoffending.

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