Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Government must address crisis of self-inflicted deaths in prison


The Joint Committee on Human Rights has today released a report calling on the Government to bring forward legislation in the next Parliament to address the shocking rise in self-harm and suicide in prisons. The number of self-inflicted deaths in prison in England and Wales has risen steadily from 58 in 2010 to 119 in 2016, with a particularly sharp increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths amongst women prisoners. 


The Committee said the following changes need to be made to legislation:

  • A legal duty on the Secretary of State to specify and maintain a minimum ratio of prison officers to prisoners in each establishment.
  • A prescribed legal maximum time that a prisoner can be kept in their cell.
  • A mechanism to ensure the Secretary of State’s accountability to Parliament for overcrowding.
  • A mechanism to ensure the Secretary of State’s accountability to Parliament for maintaining the specified levels of staffing.
  • Provision to be made in the Prison Rules to enable young offenders, and prisoners with mental health conditions which place them at risk of suicide, to make free phone calls to a designated family member or friend.
  • A legal requirement to ensure that young prisoners and those with mental health conditions have access to a key worker.

Any new legislation should make explicit that one of the purposes of prison is to treat prisoners with humanity, fairness and respect for their dignity.

Chair's comments

The Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, said:

"The introduction of legislation would do something that should have been done a long time ago, but that is now urgent, which is to end the death toll of people with mental health conditions who take their own lives in our prisons.

When the state takes someone into custody, we have a duty to keep them safe—their life becomes our responsibility—yet prisons are not a place of safety. Last year, 12 women and 107 men took their own lives while in prison in the custody of the state.  Every single one of these deaths is an absolute tragedy for each individual and their family.

Successive Governments have welcomed reports and proposals on this issue.  They have changed policy and issued new guidelines, but nothing changes, except the death toll, which rises. In 1991, we had the Woolf report; in 2007, the Corston report; in 2009, the Bradley report; and in 2015, the Harris report. It is not that we do not know what needs to be done; it is just that we have not done it.  We must recognise reality.

There is no point in having more reviews, new policies or new guidance; we must make sure that the changes we all know are needed actually happen in practice. For that to happen, we need a legal framework to be introduced in the next Parliament that will ensure that the necessary changes take place because they are required by statute."

Further information

Image: Ministry of Justice

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