Two-thirds of prisoners who died by self-inflicted means while in custody in England and Wales over the last 10 years had been on suicide or self-harm watch at the time of their death, or at some point during his time in prison. the Guardian has learned.
Between 2012 and 2021, 265 prisoners awaiting trial or sentence committed suicide, 174 of whom had been admitted to an ACCT, the support plan put in place for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm, according to a data analysis of a Freedom of Information request.
The Ministry of Justice’s FoI response also showed that in 2021, 23 of the 32 prisoners who died by self-inflicted means were in an ACCT at the time of their death, or at some point during their time on remand.
The highest number of self-inflicted deaths of remand prisoners was recorded in 2015, when 36 died, of which 24 had been in an ACCT.
The vast majority of these prisoners had not been tried in court, and the rest had been convicted but not yet sentenced. In 2021, 64% of remand prisoners were awaiting trial, while 36% were awaiting sentencing. More than half of those arrested in 2021, 56%, had been charged with non-violent crimes.
Prisoners in pre-trial detention are considered the most vulnerable in the prison system. While they now represent 16% of prisoners, between September 2020 and September 2021 they represented 42% of the 81 prisoners who died by self-inflicted means.
Since 2005, prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm have been managed through the ACCT process, which involves creating an immediate action plan to ensure prisoners are out of danger. The frequency of conversations, observations and support should be agreed and recorded in ACCT documents.
The ACCT came under fire from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman after a rise in self-inflicted deaths in 2014-15, leading to a full review of the process in 2015.
The review, which was not published until 2019, revealed that prison staff struggled to ensure case review meetings were multidisciplinary, finding time to engage properly with prisoners and record observation entries detailed promptly along with their other duties, and knowing when to open and close an ACCT. Prison staff also said ACCT training was variable and sometimes insufficient.
In today’s Saturday magazine, The Guardian reports on the case of prison inmate Garry Beadle, who committed suicide in 2019 after being warned he would not last two days in prison. He hanged himself after six days in remand and died four days later.
At an inquest into her death, HMP Durham was criticized for inadequate record keeping and information sharing, mismanagement of medication and inadequate ACCT training.
Deborah Coles, chief executive of human rights charity Inquest, said of the data obtained through FoIrequest: “These are alarming and distressing figures. That people identified at risk can die so regularly points to serious systemic problems with the ACCT process and its implementation and monitoring We need urgent action to prevent the unfair and excessive use of pre-trial detention and we need to look beyond the use of prison and act on clear solutions: reducing the prison population and reorienting resources to community, health and welfare services”.
Nick Hardwick, professor of criminology at Royal Holloway, University of London and former inspector of prisons for England and Wales, said: “These figures are worrying. There is a danger that ACTT processes will become an exercise of boxes that lose sight of the result they are trying to achieve and the specific individual needs of the prisoners in question”.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “Around 50,000 ACCT cases are opened in a normal year and almost all of them are closed with the prisoner alive, which shows they are very effective in serving their purpose. We are investing £37m free over the next three years to make prisons even safer, with improved awareness training, prison helplines and ligature-resistant cells.”