Luciana Berger: Prison suicide levels mean 'death penalty by the back door' exists

Posted On: 
1st March 2017

Speaking to PoliticsHome ahead of her Westminster Hall debate, Labour MP Luciana Berger accused the Government of not doing enough to prevent prison suicide.

Credit: 
PA Images

In 2016, 119 people took their lives in prison. This figure is the highest since records began over 25 years ago, doubling since 2012, while self harming in prisons has reached a record high of 37,784 incidents - up 18% from the previous year.

But instead launching an investigation into the crisis, former shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger believes the Government is “not really doing anything”.

The Labour MP has accused the Conservatives of U-turning after pledging to undertake an investigation and consequently she has scheduled a Westminster Hall debate in order to hold the Government to account.

“Last year the Minister said in one of his answers they would be looking at everything that had happened and respond towards the end of the year," she told PoliticsHome. "I then asked parliamentary questions to try and drill down what that meant in practice and there's been no report back. They're not really doing anything.”

Ms Berger said she cannot answer for the Government and does not know why it is not acting to stop further deaths.

“I can't tell you why [the Government isn't doing anything] but that is what is happening. They've got a responsibility in a civilised society to ensure that people pay for their time with their crimes, but not with their lives. We rightly banned the death penalty decades ago but you're eight times more likely to take your life in prison than you are outside of prison and that's just not acceptable.

“This is essentially the death penalty by the back door for some prisoners who go on to take their own lives and that's just not acceptable in 2017.”

Ms Berger believes the numbers are increasing for a combination of reasons, most notably due to the fact that there are 7,000 fewer prison officers in the UK than in 2010.

“We don't have the staff for people to able to do things like suicide watch. We know that people are being told that they'll be kept safe but there isn't the health services available of a decent enough quality and calibre to be able to properly look after all of our prisoners. I've seen first-hand, having visited a prison quite recently and seen the atrocious levels of care.”

Another factor for more prisoners killing themselves could be because medical appointments are being cancelled as staff shortages mean prisoners are unable to be escorted.

A recent study by the Centre for Mental Health commissioned by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice, found a decrease in staff meant prisoners could not be taken to psychiatric appointments which led to prisoners not getting the help they need. The figures showed up to 30 prison healthcare appointments have been cancelled in one day.

When asked if this led to more people taking their own lives and an increase in self harm, Ms Berger said: “of course, yes”.

Ms Berger told PoliticsHome the Government needs to take "concrete action" to quell the crisis, beyond just reinstating some of the 7,000 prison officers that have been lost. Moreover, the information on how to tackle the problem is readily available.

“There's enough enquires and reports done by various select committees for the Government to know there are already recommendations out there, they just need to take some action.

She continued: “This has to get better, it's a shameful stain on our nation's conscience that this situation is allowed to persist. It's just not acceptable. We have prisons to protect the public and also to encourage rehabilitation, we don't expect people to take their lives because of it and everything should be done to stop that.”