The latest Safety in Custody statistics published on Thursday (28 January 2021) make for predictably grim reading. The figures are harder to analyse than usual because much of the period covered by the statistics (up to the end of December for deaths in custody and up to 30 September for assaults and self-harm) cover time when prisons were in total lockdown. My assumption was always that the new figures would show a big fall in assaults (being confined to your cell makes it hard to get into disputes with other prisoners or staff). I was less certain about what would happen to the self-harm figures. While I had no doubt that the additional stresses of lockdown would result in more self-harm, I wasn’t sure whether staff would always be aware of self-harming behaviour when they were having so much less contact with prisoners.
As it turns out, the number of recorded assaults have fallen while the number of recorded self-harm incidents has fallen for men and increased for women. The main points from the statistical bulletin are summarised in the graphic below.
In the 12 months to December 2020, there were 318 deaths in prison custody (a rate of 4.0 per 1,000 prisoners), an increase from 300 deaths in the previous 12 months (a rate of 3.6 per 1,000 prisoners). The most recent quarter saw the number of deaths increase to 109, an increase of 70% from 64 in the three months to September 2020. Further information on deaths from COVID-19 is below.
From March 2020 to the end of December 2020, 71 prisoners have died within 28 days of having a positive covid-19 test or where there was a clinical assessment that COVID-19 was a contributory factor in their deaths regardless of the cause of death. Of these 71 deaths, 51 are suspected to be due to COVID-19.
The remaining 20 deaths are believed to be due to other causes although the prisoner had tested positive for COVID-19. [You can keep up-to-date with the latest prison COVID stats on my blog post which is updated every Friday.]
Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender. The number of incidents in male establishments decreased by 7% from 50,174 in the 12 months to September 2019 to 46,427 in the 12 months to September 2020. The number of incidents in the female estate increased 8% from 11,482 in the previous 12 months to 12,443. On a quarterly basis, the number of incidents in the three months to September 2020 increased by 5% in male establishments compared with the previous three months and increased by 24% in female establishments.
The rate of incidents, which takes population size in to account, was 595 incidents per 1,000 prisoners in the male estate in the 12 months to September 2020, down 6% from 635 incidents per 1,000 prisoners in the 12 months to September 2019. The rate of incidents in female establishments was far higher, and increased by 18%, from 3,016 in the previous 12 months to 3,557 in the latest 12 months.
In the 12 months to September 2020, there were 4.2 incidents of self-harm per self-harming male compared with 4.3 the previous 12 months, while for females it increased to 10.0 incidents per self-harming individual from 9.4 the previous 12 months.
In the 12 months to September 2020, assault incidents decreased by 27% to 24,407, a rate of 299 incidents per 1,000 prisoners. In the latest quarter, there were 4,956 assaults, an increase of 9% from the previous quarter. The quarterly figure reached a peak of 9,111 in the July to September 2018 quarter. It has continued on a downward trend since then, with a rise in the latest quarter.
The number of incidents in male establishments decreased by 27% from 31,792 to 23,301 in the 12 months to September 2020. The number of incidents in female establishments decreased by 27% from 1,516 to 1,106 incidents in the same period.
In the latest quarter (when lockdown in most prisons was eased), the number of assaults in male establishments increased by 9% to 4,720, and the number of assaults in female establishments increased by 17% to 236. Assault rates were similar in both male establishments (299 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) and female establishments (316 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) in the latest 12 months, although the assault rate was higher in female establishments for the first time in the time series.
It is a persistently demoralising and upsetting task to read and share the Safety in Custody bulletins. Behind the, frankly staggering, numbers each death, assault or incident of self-harm represents real damage to one or more human beings (and collateral damage to their loved ones).
Given the continuing lockdown in prison, I am afraid that future editions may well bring even more tragic news. If ever, there was evidence that we need to invest more in help and support to people in prison (including staff), this bulletin provides it.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.