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Deaths in prisons in England and Wales reached record highs last year

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On 27 January, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) released its quarterly statistics on deaths and self-harm in prison in England and Wales. The data shows that 2021 had the highest number of deaths in prison ever recorded. INQUEST – a charity supporting bereaved people impacted by state related deaths – argues that these figures demonstrate it’s time to rethink prisons as the solution to crime.

Highest annual number of deaths in prison

The data shows that 371 people died in prison in 2021, the highest recorded annual figure to date. This amounts to more than one death per day. There are currently 78,324 prisoners in England and Wales, and 121 prisons.

According to INQUEST analysis of the MoJ data:

  • 250 deaths were recorded as ‘natural causes’ – a 13% increase from 2020. However, INQUEST states that its own “casework and monitoring shows many of these deaths are premature and far from ‘natural’”.
  • “86 deaths were self-inflicted, an increase of 28% from the previous 12 months”. Younger people in prison custody “were most likely to die self-inflicted deaths”. INQUEST analysis highlights that 69% of all deaths of imprisoned 18-39 year olds in 2021 were self-inflicted.  
  • 4 deaths were categorised as ‘non-natural’.
  • “30 await classification”.
  • There was one case of homicide.
Coronavirus not entirely to blame

HM Prison and Probation Service statistics published in December 2021 show:

258 prisoners and supervised individuals have died having tested positive within 28 days of death or where there was a clinical assessment COVID-19 was a contributory factor in their death.

177 of these people were inside  prison and 81 were under the supervision of the probation service. But these deaths occur against a backdrop of people being kept in highly restrictive regimes, and with some people placed in indefinite solitary confinement. Such measures could have cost prisoners their physical and mental health. 

In the wake of the pandemic, INQUEST urged the MoJ to take action to mitigate the consequences of “extreme conditions” in prisons. Yet the government ignored expert advice calling for an urgent early release programme and a reduction of the prison population. 

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INQUEST argues that the number of deaths in prisons in 2021 cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone.

INQUEST director Deborah Coles said:

This time last year we said: we fear the worst is yet to come. Sadly, we were right. Despite what could have been learned from the first wave of the pandemic, the Government allowed yet more people to die in prison. But the pandemic alone cannot explain away this record level of deaths.

Time for alternatives

INQUEST asserts that these figures demonstrate it’s time to rethink prisons as the solution to crime. The organisation is calling for a move away from the prison system, towards radical alternatives. In the meantime, it states that improvements to prison conditions and a reduction in the prison population are necessary to reduce the number of deaths in prisons.

Coles said:

These statistics represent the serious consequences of highly restrictive regimes on people’s mental and physical health. They also reflect the continuation of a harmful and dangerous prison system, and criminal justice policies which use prison as the response to social problems. 

INQUEST is calling for urgent action “to ensure people in prison have access to healthcare and adequate support” in the short term. In the long term, the organisation seeks “a dramatic reduction of the prison population and more investment in radical community alternatives”.

In spite of campaigners’ calls for the contrary, the government seeks to expand England and Wales’ prison estate. As set out in its 2021 prisons strategy white paper, the MoJ is working towards creating 20,000 more prison places and introducing tougher sentencing rules.

Featured image via Fakurian Design/Unsplash

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