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Mental Health and Deaths in Prison: Committee launches inquiry

14 December 2016

The number of deaths in prison in England and Wales has soared in recent years and now stands at the highest level since 2007. The Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry seeks to establish whether a human rights based approach can lead to better prevention of deaths in prison of people with mental health conditions.

Scope of the inquiry

The inquiry will be structured around three broad themes:

  1. Whether prison is the right place for vulnerable offenders such as those with mental health conditions and/or learning difficulties
  2. The way prisoners with mental health conditions are treated in prison
  3. How to ensure that lessons for the future are learned, errors not repeated and that good practice becomes common practice

As part of the inquiry, the Committee also considers cross-cutting themes such as the importance of leadership, governance, recruitment, training, development and retention of good staff, resources, and identification of good practice.

Call for written submissions

The Committee examines eight specific issues. It would particularly welcome evidence which addresses recommendations that have been made in recent reports but which have not been satisfactorily implemented.

1. The appropriateness of prison

What more can be done to ensure that vulnerable people who should never be in prison do not get sent there in the first place. What are the practical alternatives to prison for people with mental health problems?

2. Identification and assessment of risk

How can the systems for identifying and assessing risk for vulnerable prisoners with mental health conditions be improved, e.g. by improving the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork process ("ACCT"), better information sharing, or earlier identification of mental health problems?

3. The safety of the prison environment

What more can be done to protect vulnerable prisoners from the risk of violence from other prisoners?

4. Access to specialist mental health services and other treatments/interventions

Is access to specialist mental health services adequate and consistent?

5. Maintaining family relationships

What more can be done to safeguard the mental health of prisoners by ensuring that proper family contact is maintained, including imprisoned mothers and their children?

6. Purposeful activity

What more can be done to ensure that prisoners can engage in purposeful activity? How can we ensure that they are not confined to their cells for 22/23 hours a day?

7. Segregation/solitary confinement and appropriate use of restraint

Is enough being done to ensure that the practice of isolating prisoners is never used inappropriately for prisoners with mental health conditions? E.g. by new structures, processes or mechanisms which facilitate learning such as the collection and publication of data on the deaths of prisoners with mental health conditions.

8. Learning lessons for the future

What more can be done to ensure that lessons are learned for the future about the deaths in prison of people with mental health conditions?

Get involved

Submit your views through the Mental health and deaths in prison inquiry page.

Deadline for submissions

Deadline for written submissions of no more than 3000 words has been extended to Friday 31 March 2017.

Submissions should bear in mind that the Committee's starting point is recommendations already made by the reports of other investigations and inquiries, and should therefore focus on identifying the most significant recommendations which remain unimplemented and how they could best be implemented.

Inquiry background

Several inquiries into deaths in custody have been carried out in recent years, finding that mental health conditions - often associated with multiple vulnerabilities, such as abuse, deprivation, poor education and learning difficulties – are a common feature. Yet many recommendations for addressing this problem remain unimplemented.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has recently described the rise in self-harm and suicide in prisons as "shocking" and the rising death toll is predicted to continue. The Government recognises the gravity of the problem. On 3 November 2016 it published a White Paper on prison safety and reform (PDF 600KB) and announced immediate measures intended to improve prison safety. Everyone working in the area agrees that urgent action is needed to reverse this trend.

Previous reports

The most significant reports that have been published in recent years which examine the problems of deaths in custody include:

Committee's comments

JCHR Chair, Harriet Harman said:

"Human rights law imposes a positive duty on the state to protect the life of those in its care, including in prisons. The rigorous application of a human rights framework may reveal that there is more that can be done to prevent non-natural deaths in prison of people with mental health conditions. JCHR seeks to ensure that this inquiry will make a distinctive, human rights-based contribution to solving the problem.

Our Rapporteur on Mental Health and Human Rights, Amanda Solloway MP, has undertaken a series of informal visits and meetings related to human rights and mental health in prisons, and it is clear from her findings that urgent action is needed.

Building on the many inquiries and reports into deaths in custody, including the recent Harris Review of Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds (PDF 2.4MB) and the EHRC Report and ongoing Progress Reviews on Preventing Deaths in Detention of Adults with Mental Health Conditions, our inquiry will aim to ensure that recommendations aimed at avoiding such deaths are no longer ignored."

The Rapporteur on Mental Health and Human Rights, Amanda Solloway MP said:

"I have undertaken a series of visits and meetings over the last few months to find out for myself what some of the key issues are as they relate to mental health and deaths in prisons across England and Wales. I have been struck by some examples of innovative prison leadership, but also shocked by the high numbers of prisoners with mental health conditions and the escalating number of deaths in our prisons.

As the Government has acknowledged in its White Paper on Prison Reform and Safety (PDF 600KB), immediate action must be taken to prevent future deaths in our prisons.

Our inquiry will focus on the relevant human rights law as it affects prisoners and whether a human rights based approach can lead to better prevention of deaths of people with mental health conditions in prison."

Further information

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