Ministers should be held accountable for the “extraordinary” rise in self-harm in prisons, including nearly 120 suicides last year, MPs and peers have been told.
Members of the joint committee on human rights, who were hearing evidence from four prison reform experts, were told that 119 prisoners took their own lives in 2016, an increase from 90 the prevous year.
They also heard that there were nearly 38,000 incidents of self-harm in prisons across England and Wales.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told the committee: “Decisions have been made by successive politicians about what happens in prisons and they have not been held accountable.
“If you decide to cut staff, there are consequences and people die as a consequence.
“If you decide to close prisons and not cut the number of prisoners but cram everybody into fetid cells that they are sharing with a toilet and cockroaches, their mental health will deteriorate and people will die as a consequence, and those are decisions that are made by politicians.”
She blamed the rise on the “explosion” in the prison population in the 1990s and early 2000s and the decision of the last but one justice secretary – Chris Grayling – to cut staff, close prisons and “cramp people into fewer prisons”.
Crook (pictured, giving evidence to the committee) said that successive justice secretaries had “led us down the path to where we are today”.
The Labour peer Baroness Corston, a former chair of the committee and author of a 2007 review on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, told the committee: “Things are getting much worse. Staffing in prisons has been cut by 30 per cent since 2010.”
She said there was “an epidemic of self-harm in women’s prisons”.
Juliet Lyon, chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC), said that a focus on prisoner safety and the state’s obligations under article two of the Human Rights Act – the right to life – had led to a slight drop in the number of deaths in the years after 2003-04.
But she said there had been a “spike” in deaths in custody in the last three years, leading to last year’s “extraordinary” rise in self-harm, which included the self-inflicted deaths of 12 women.
She said: “It is not just cuts to staff and overcrowding, it is also not enough time out of cell, purposeful activity, time to meet with family, in some cases not enough food.”
But Lyon said the one bright spot was the introduction of liaison and diversion services in many courts and police stations across England, following a recommendation made by Lord Bradley in his 2009 review of people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in the criminal justice system.
Lyon said that nearly two-thirds of larger police stations and courts now had such a service, although there were questions to ask about how long the rollout was taking and the adequacy of treatment in the community.
But she said it was “a beacon of hope in terms of recognition that if somebody’s offending is comparatively minor but often repetitive, if they get the treatment they need… for mental health or social care for learning disabilities, [if] they need treatment for addictions, the opportunity to divert them [from the prison system] exists.
“If their offending is very serious they should get extra support as they go through the system. It’s impressive.”
And she said that deaths in police custody had fallen and remained fairly low because Theresa May had said, when she was home secretary, that police cells should not be used as places of safety for those experiencing a mental health crisis.
The Labour peer Lord Harris (pictured), a former IAPDC chair, told the committee that each death was an individual tragedy but that “what is most disturbing is the same issues are occurring time and time again”.
He said that the state’s failure on article two of the Human Rights Act “is all the greater because those same criticisms occur time and time again”.