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Surge in number of people dying in prison
Safety in Custody Statistics reveal a 42% increase in the number of people dying in prison in the year to March 2021.

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408 deaths in prison custody

Today’s (29 April 2021) Safety in Custody Statistics paint a grim picture of the impact of coronavirus with 121 more people dying in custody in the year to this March than the year before. This increase is totally attributable to the virus since other MoJ stats reveal that 143 people have died from COVID up to the 31st March this year. You can see my post tracking the latest prison COVID deaths and test data here. The post is updated weekly. In the first three months of 2021, 154 people died in prison, the most ever in one quarter

The main points from the graphic are reproduced below.

The Safety in Custody statistical bulletin is published every quarter and I have always regarded it as an excellent indicator of the general state of our prison system because it includes key data about assaults and self-harm which is as up-to-date as possible (in this case up to the end of 2020). However, since lockdown and the very restricted prison regimes, it is more difficult to analyse the figures.

My assumption is that statistics relating to a period in lockdown are bound to show a big fall in assaults (being confined to your cell makes it hard to get into disputes with other prisoners or staff).


It is harder to assess the impact on self-harm figures. While it seems inevitable that the additional stresses of lockdown have resulted in negative impacts on prisoners’ mental health, including self-harm, it isn’t clear to me whether staff would always be aware of self-harming behaviour during a period when they were having so much less contact with prisoners.

The last set of Safety in Custody figures (which also covered a period when prisons were in lockdown) reported that the number of recorded self-harm incidents had fallen for men but increased for women.

This trend continues in the current set of statistics. In 9 out of the 12 months of the year under consideration (January – December 2020), most prisons were operating a very restricted regime. During this period the prison population fell by approximately 5,000 (owing primarily to the backlog in the courts caused by the pandemic). Taking into account the fall in the prison average population in 2020, the rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners decreased 13% in male establishments but increased 13% in female establishments in 2020.

In the most recent quarter, reported incidents of self-harm fell markedly in both the male (down by 5% on the previous quarter)  and female (down 19%) estates.

This bulletin also contains details on the main methods of self-harm. The most common method for self-harm in prison was cutting/scratching, 52% of females and 71% of males self-harmed by cutting/scratching in 2020.
The percentage of self-harm incidents that were caused by cutting/scratching decreased by 13% in male establishments and increased by 4% in female establishments in the most recent year. Hanging decreased by 30% for males and 23% for females. Self-strangulation decreased by 23% for males and 1% for females. Overdose, self-poisoning or swallowing decreased by 16% for males, but increased by 14% for females.

For both men and women, those aged between 30-39 were most likely to self-harm. For females, 38% of individuals who self-harmed in 2020 were aged between 30 and 39 years at the time of the incident, as were 35% of males. For males, 23% of individuals who self-harmed were aged 24 or under, compared to 20% of females.


Another interesting fact from this statistical bulletin is that for the first year ever, the rate of assaults was higher in female establishments (310 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) than in male establishments (266 incidents per 1,000 prisoners.


Given the highest number of prison deaths on record ever, we must hope that the Government heeds the advice from research and SAGE to prioritise the vaccination of everyone in prison.


Thanks to John Cameron for permission to use the header image which was previously published on Unsplash.

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4 responses

  1. Pingback: Another review…
  2. Yes, All Prisons should be vaccinated, because the virus will never go away if any group of people is left out. Prison is no different. When it come to air-bourne diseases.

  3. Pingback: Deadly force…
  4. Any analysis of harm figures can be used as a tool for potential reduction and would also benefit from being broken down to male, female and juvenile (depending upon which groups are included the first instance).

    Prolific self harm cases and repeat (revolving door) offenders can be difficult to manage and track in attempts to assess improvements and ‘what works’ but some great work is happening in prisons today.

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