Child arrests in Bedfordshire reduced by 63 per cent Image:Howard League for Penal Reform

HMP Bedford one of seven prisons assessed as being “of serious concern”

The number of people who have died in prisons in England and Wales is falling, but incidents of self-injury continue to rise year on year, figures seen by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal today (Thursday 30 July 2020).

A statistical bulletin published by the Ministry of Justice shows that 294 people died in prison custody in the 12 months to the end of June 2020. This included 76 people who lost their lives through suicide.

Between March and June 2020, 26 people died in circumstances where COVID-19 was assessed to be a contributory factor.

The bulletin states that prisons recorded 64,552 incidents of self-injury in the 12 months to the end of March 2020, at a rate of one every eight minutes. This represents an 11 per cent rise compared to the previous 12 months.

Over the same period, prisons recorded 31,568 assaults – one every 17 minutes. This is an 8 per cent reduction on the figures for the previous 12 months.

The figures for assaults and self-injury incidents are from the 12 months immediately before severely restricted regimes were imposed in prisons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“After many years when the tide of tragedy and violence in prisons rose higher and higher, it is welcome to see that fewer people have died and fewer people have been assaulted.

“But it is disappointing to see that the annual number of incidents of self-injury has continued to rise, and this is particularly concerning given the enforced lockdown that was introduced in March in response to the pandemic.

“While we understand that recorded incidents of self-injury may have fallen since the lockdown began, we should bear in mind that recording itself will have been affected by the severely restricted regimes.

“We should also bear in mind that mental distress caused by isolation can affect people in many different ways, some of which play out over the long term.

“It underlines the need for restrictions to be lifted safely so that prisons can provide purposeful regimes that givepeople an opportunity to make amends.”

Today the Ministry of Justice has also published its annual prison performance ratings. Seven prisons – Bedford, Bristol, Feltham (holding children and young adults), Hewell, Lewes, Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs – have been awarded the lowest possible rating, with their performance assessed as being “of serious concern”.

A Prison Service spokesperson told the Chronicle:

“Staff have been working hard to improve conditions at HMP Bedford and a recent inspection found good progress in ensuring a clean and decent place for prisoners.

“The prison is receiving extra funding, staff training and support to raise standards further as quickly as possible.”

An independent review of progress at Bedford, published in September 2019 by HM Inspector of Prisons, found improved living conditions, prisoner access to basics such as bedding and furniture, and good overall progress in ensuring clean and decent conditions for prisoners.

Coronavirus restrictions

Since March, the Howard League has published briefings showing the impact that the coronavirus restrictions have had on people in prison, including children and young adults.

It said that tens of thousands of people have been living in solitary confinement or overcrowded conditions for four months.

Throughout the pandemic, the Howard League has continued to run its confidential legal service, including a telephone advice line available to children and young adults under the age of 21 in custody.

Between 24 March and 18 June, the charity received almost 2,000 calls on the advice line from children and young adults, as well as from their families and other professionals.

Bedford Prison By Simon Speed - Own work, Public Domain, https-::commons.wikimedia.org:w:index.php?curid=2568155