Self-harm still rising in our prisons

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Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 63,328 incidents in 2019, up 14% on the previous year. The number of assaults was down.

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Prison safety statistics for 2019

The latest quarterly safety in Custody statistics bulletin, published last Thursday 30 April make for predictably grim reading, even in these dark times, although there were also some glimmers of hope.

Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 63,328 incidents in the 12 months to December 2019, up 14% from the previous 12 months. However, the number of assaults was 4% lower than the previous year. You can see a summary of the main findings in the graphic below:

Deaths in custody

In the 12 months to March 2020, there were 286 deaths in prison custody (a rate of 3.4 per 1,000 prisoners), a decrease from 317 deaths in the previous 12 months (a rate of 3.8 per 1,000 prisoners). The most recent quarter saw the number of deaths decrease to 63, down from 74 in the three months to December 2019. Quarterly death figures should be considered with caution due to greater volatility and the potential for seasonal effects. 

There were 80 apparent self-inflicted deaths in the 12 months to March 2020 (a rate of 1.0 per 1,000 prisoners), a decrease of 8% from 87 self-inflicted deaths in the previous 12 months. Also, there were 160 deaths due to natural causes (a rate of 1.9 per 1,000 prisoners), a 5% decrease from 169 deaths the previous 12 months.

There were 43 deaths recorded as ‘Other’ in the 12 months to March 2020, 39 of which are ‘awaiting further information’ prior to being classified. In some cases, the results of the toxicology and post-mortem tests are inconclusive, meaning classification cannot be arrived at until inquest (which can be a considerable time after the death). As a result, the number of deaths in the individual categories is not directly comparable with earlier years: it is likely that numbers in some categories will be revised upwards once classifications have been finalised.

Self-harm

In the 12 months to December 2019, there were 63,328 reported incidents of self-harm (a rate of 764 per 1,000 prisoners), up 14% from the previous 12 months, and the highest recorded figure. On a quarterly basis, the number of incidents in the three months to December 2019 decreased by 1% from the previous quarter (from 16,329 to 16,197 incidents).

The number of individuals self-harming increased by 3% in the latest 12 months, to the highest recorded figure of 12,977 individuals (a rate of 156 individuals per 1,000 prisoners). The number of incidents per self-harming individual increased by 11%, from 4.4 in the previous 12 months to 4.9 in the latest 12 months, although a small number of prolific self-harmers have a disproportionate impact on this figure. The majority of those who self-harm in prison do so only once.

The number of self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance increased by 8% to 3,481 in the 12 months to December 2019, however it decreased by 5% in the latest quarter (848 incidents). The proportion of incidents that required hospital attendance decreased in the previous 12 months, from 5.8% to 5.5%.

The most common method for self-harm in prison was cutting/scratching, 51% of females and 68% of males self-harmed by cutting.

Assaults

In the 12 months to December 2019, assault incidents decreased by 4% to 32,669, a rate of 394 incidents per 1,000 prisoners. In the latest quarter, there were 7,611 assaults, decrease of 7% from the previous quarter. The quarterly figure reached a peak of 9,111 in the July to September 2018 quarter.

The number of incidents in male establishments decreased by 5% from 32,782 to 31,244 in the 12 months to December 2019. There was no change in the number of incidents in female establishments, from 1,422 to 1,425 incidents in the same period.

In the latest quarter, the number of assaults in male establishments decreased by 8% to 7,285, and the number of assaults in female establishments decreased by 1% to 326. Assault rates were higher in male establishments (395 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) than female establishments (376 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) in the latest 12 months.

Conclusion

It has been a deeply upsetting task to cover the quarterly Safety in Custody Bulletins as closely as I have done over the last few years.

Because the data are so recent (up to March this year for deaths and December 2019 for self-harm and assaults), I continue to believe they are the most reliable indicator of the state of our prison system.

With the prison system also under siege from coronavirus and most prisoners confined to their cells for most of every day, we must be fearful on the consequences for prisoners who may self-harm.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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