Safety Last! Deaths and Self-Harm in Prisons

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

Every four days, a person in prison takes their own life. Levels of distress have never been higher with more than 152 recorded incidents of self-harm in prison every day. The Government have long been on notice about the perilous state of our prisons. Yet, life-saving recommendations from inquests and oversight bodies are systematically ignored. That the historically high numbers of deaths are allowed to continue is a national scandal. Prison safety cannot be resolved by framing it as a drugs problem or weaponising staff with PAVA spray. Punitive responses have not worked and will not work. Bold and decisive action is needed to tackle sentencing policy; reducing prison numbers; and redirecting resources to community services. Deborah Coles, Director, INQUEST. 

This quote is taken from a press release distributed by the charity INQUEST. It was written in response to the latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics on prison safety. The statistics revealed appalling and offensive levels of deaths and self-harm in prison. In the 12 months up to March 2019, 317 prisoners died inside, an increase of 18 on the previous year. Eighty seven deaths were self-inflicted, up from 73 in the same period. There were a record number of incidents of self-harm – 55,598 – a rise of 25% from 2017. Self-harm was highly gendered. In male prisons, there were 570 incidents per 1000 prisoners. In women’s prisons, the rate was an astonishing 2675 per 1000 women.

There were 164 deaths from ‘natural causes’. However, as INQUEST has noted, the idea that a death in prison can be ‘natural’ is highly debatable:

“natural cause” deaths (as defined by the Ministry of Justice) are the leading cause of mortality in prisons. In 2017, the “natural cause” death rate was 2.15 deaths per 1,000 prisoners. This is often attributed to the ageing prison population….INQUEST’s monitoring, casework and evidence from inquests and official reports, suggests that many people are dying prematurely and unnecessarily due to inadequate healthcare provision.

The MoJ’s publication also contained data on prison assaults. In 2018, there were 34,223 assaults by prisoners on prisoners and by prisoners on staff. Just under 4000 (11%) were classified as serious. It is worth noting that the institutional processes involved in the reporting, recording and collation of prison assault statistics have changed over time. As with the crime statistics, more generally, they should be approached with caution with respect to making definitive claims about upward or downward trends.  It is also worth noting that no mention was made of assaults on prisoners by staff.

Coincidently – or not – on the day the safety statistics were published, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its analysis of the latest crime statistics. According to the ONS, homicides were at a 10 year high and knife crime was rising. Crucially, it was the debate about violent crime which dominated the news when both sets of statistics were released. The degradation, despair and deaths of prisoners, and the state’s lamentable failure to fulfill its duty of care towards them, were missing from the news coverage.

A Statistical Sleight of Hand

There were significant problems with how the statistics were presented. First, the MoJ subsumed different forms of behaviour – self-inflicted death, self-harm and assaults – under the general heading of ‘safety’. However, the roots, context and motivation involved in a prisoner choosing to kill, or self-harm him or herself, is clearly different from a prisoner who engages in assault. That nuanced understanding of the complexities, fragilities, despair and emotions of human behaviour, operating in the often-desperate context of the power networks of the modern prison, was missing. Instead, it was the cold, calculated ‘science’ of the quantitative statistics around violent crime which dominated the news.

Second, presenting the statistics on safety in one publication inevitably meant that the media uncritically concentrated on the wider crime statistics, and/or the statistics involving prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on staff assaults. This, in turn, meant that the safety of prisoners, and their experiences of state violence, and the everyday brutal harms generated by the prison environment and culture, were ignored. Even so-called liberal media outlets were culpable. The safety statistics were ignored by Channel 4 News on the night they were published. The following day’s hard copy of the Guardian contained stories about a number of key social issues: cladding, extinction rebellion and the gender pay gap. However, there were also a number of depressingly frivolous stories:  the athlete Mo Farah’s puerile dispute with another athlete; a discussion about who was to star in the new, anachronistic James Bond film; and an indescribably boring interview with the musician Pete Doherty. There was nothing about prisoners’ deaths or self-harm.

The report by the ONS was covered by the Guardian and in the early evening news summary on BBC Radio 4. Knife crime and homicides were highlighted, but, again, there was no discussion about prison deaths and self-harm. This pattern was repeated on the BBC’s main broadcast at 10.00pm. The Times reported the story under the banner headline Violence in Prisons at a Record High[i]. The short article devoted nearly 150 words to assaults in prison and 50 to self-inflicted deaths and self-harm.

Clearly, the examples above are neither a complete nor a random sample of all of the media outlets in the immediate hours and days after the statistics were published. However, they do provide a snapshot of a penal reality which was constructed in very precise terms built around what was and what was not considered newsworthy and what constituted, and what did not constitute, a human life that was worthy of empathy, sympathy and respect. In uncritically concentrating on the statistics around violent crime, the media reproduced a distorted picture about the nature and extent of violence and reinforced the narrow, legalistic, political and commonsense narratives, around how violence and dangerousness are defined and understood both inside and outside of prisons.

Finally, the statistics sanctified the work of prison officers and highlighted the dangers they faced daily. So while there are assaults against some staff, the collation of the statistics is complicated. As the MoJ pointed out in the latest safety bulletin: ‘[there] was a change in how staff assaults have been recorded. This has simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents’ (emphasis added). This warning about the validity of the statistics was ignored by the media.

It is also worth repeating that occupational danger is much more complex than the surface statistics indicate. For example, as David Scott has noted, eight prison officers have died in the course of their duties since 1850. Additionally, the number of days lost through prison staff being absent from work as a result of assaults is minute compared with the number of days lost through a range of other health and safety issues such as musculoskeletal problems, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and depression. And while prison staff sometimes might find themselves in dangerous situations, the dangers to health and safety confronting other occupational groups, including dying at work, is higher compared with the dangers facing prison staff. Again, these issues were ignored.


The MoJ statistics illustrate three things. First, prisons are dangerous, demoralising and harmful to prisoners. Second, the state has lamentably failed in its duty of care towards them. Third, the response of successive governments – Coalition, Conservative and Labour – to self-inflicted deaths and self-harm has been abject. Political parties have neither the desire, utopian vision nor the policies to address these issues. At the same time, state servants remain unaccountable. Scandalously and shamefully, recommendations made by official bodies such as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners, designed to prevent future deaths, have simply been ignored.

The abject response from the political parties means that profound questions about prison safety, and the shuddering failure of penal policy more generally, are never asked with the result that prisoners will continue to die needlessly or damage themselves through self-harm. Why is there little or no discussion about these issues? Why is there a cluelessness, an obliviousness and, above all, an ignorance about the crushing harms prisons engender which arise from insidious, systemic processes of dehumanisation which, like pliers, bend the minds, and shape the consciousness of the confined, in profoundly negative and detrimental ways? Who benefits, materially and ideologically, from socially constructing the prison as a perennially dangerous place for staff?  Why are recommendations from official inquiries systematically ignored? Why are alternative, radical policies designed to prevent deaths, such as those proposed by INQUEST, also ignored, particularly by those politicians responsible for prisons? Are careers more important than lives?

At this point in time, the political/state/media complex stands indicted for its moral and political failure to ask these questions. Yet they need to be asked and answered, if the offensive rates of self-harm are to be reduced, lives saved and future deaths prevented.

[i] Thanks to Rebecca Roberts of INQUEST for pointing this article out to me.

Thanks also to Kym Atkinson and David Scott for their comments on this blog.


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