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The cost of prison suicide

New report from the Howard League for Penal Reform on the cost of prison suicide.

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The Howard League for Penal Reform

Obviously the main cost of prison suicides are the emotional pain for the family and friends, prisoners and prison staff and for all those who knew the individual who died, as well as the tragedy of a life cut needlessly short.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has raised awareness about prison suicides for many years, with increased attention over recent months which has seen the prison suicide rate shoot up.

Yesterday (12 February 2016), they published a research briefing on the financial costs of prison suicides in a further attempt to galvanise government action in suicide prevention.

The headline figures are shocking:

There were 95 suicides in prison in the 12 months to September 2015. It is estimated that the cost of these suicides is at least £160m and could be as high as £300m

What are the costs of prison suicides?

There has been no published research on the economic costs of prison suicide. The costs resulting from a suicide in prison are likely to be substantially higher than the average cost of suicide (itself estimated at £1.67 million) due to the impact a death has on the prison service as well as wider society.

If costs for the 95 suicides in prison in the 12 months to September 2015 were equivalent to the costs of a suicide in the community this would amount to around £150m.

However, the Howard League argues that additional costs associated with deaths in custody will likely substantially raise these costs. Taking these into account, the costs could be anywhere between £160m and £300m. Some of the extra costs are detailed below:

Financial impact on prisons

A death in custody will have an economic impact on prison budgets. Staff have to comply with statutory duties following the death of a prisoner and this will impact on their working day. Resources will also be required to provide additional counselling and support for staff and prisoners affected by the death.

This is of particular concern at a time when the number of prison sector staff has been reduced so sharply – 30% over the last three years.

Additionally, and unsurprisingly, studies on the impact of suicide on frontline staff have shown it can lead to increased rates of sickness and absenteeism, resulting in additional costs.

Police investigation

The Police investigate all deaths in prison on behalf of the coroner and also to determine whether a criminal investigation is necessary. Initially, the police approach all deaths as a potential homicide and officers will be deployed to collect evidence from the scene of each death and ensure that photographs or videos of the scene are taken. This information will be shared with the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman at a later date once it has been established that a criminal investigation is not required.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman investigation

The PPO conducts a fatal incident investigation into all deaths that occur in prisons and young offender institutions. This includes investigations into natural deaths as well as self-inflicted deaths and homicides. Data from the PPO showed that the average cost of a fatal incident investigation into a death in custody in 2014–15 was £10,350, although it is of course reasonable to assume that the cost of a PPO investigation into a self-inflicted death will be substantially greater than an investigation into a death by natural causes.

Investigations into self-inflicted deaths and homicides in prison will almost always be more complex and take longer to complete. The average time taken to complete a draft report into a self-inflicted death was 25 weeks.

Coroners’ costs

The senior coroner has a legal duty under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to investigate a death in custody. There is no longer a mandatory requirement to hold a jury inquest for a death in prison custody but the majority of inquests into deaths in prison continue to be jury inquests. The Chief Coroner (2015) reported there were 397 jury inquests in 2014-2015. There is no figure available for the cost of jury inquest into a death in custody but the Howard League conjectures (very reasonably) that the cost of these inquests just in the county of Kent (which has 7 prisons) approached £2 million in 2013/14.

There are also additional costs borne by the National Offender Management Service for the legal representation of prison staff required to give evidence at inquests.

Suicide prevention

Despite a government commitment to investment in suicide prevention, the Howard League produces evidence that budget cuts have had a profound impact on this area. For example:

  • The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) annual report on Lewes prison (2015) found that the Safer Custody team had been hit by staffing cuts and over 2,000 designated hours of safer custody work had been lost.
  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found in a 2015 inspection that only 58 per cent of staff at Aylesbury prison had completed suicide prevention training.

The fact that many more prisoners are locked in their cells for longer periods of time as a result of budget cuts also puts vulnerable prisoners at increased risk of suicide; it is obvious that more time out of the cell and with others are protective factors.


The Howard League concludes this grim report with a recommendation that:

The Ministry of Justice commission research to identify the average costs of a suicide behind bars. The impact of prison suicide on staff is substantial and will include emotional and financial costs.

We know that financial concerns are the driver of prison reform in the US and any factor which can bring pressure to bear to invest more in suicide prevention and reverse the current terrible rise in self-inflicted deaths in custody must be welcomes.


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One Response

  1. Do we really need to commission yet more research? Surely what we need more urgently, are evidence informed actions implemented with compassion.

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