As many as six prisoners die behind bars every week, research has suggested.
Campaigners branded the findings a “national scandal” and accused the government of failing to take action which could prevent deaths in prison.
The charity INQUEST, which supports families during coroners hearing investigating deaths, said its research and analysis of official figures indicates “dangerous, long-standing failures” in prisons and “historically high levels of deaths in custody”.
A report by the charity cited the latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures which showed there were 308 deaths in prison in the 12 months to September – equating to nearly six per week.
There were also 90 self-inflicted deaths – equating to a prisoner taking their life every four days – and 158 deaths due to “natural causes” as well as two homicides, according to the findings.
Campaigners also reviewed 61 inquests into deaths in prisons in England and Wales in 2018 and 2019.
The charity claims there have been “repeated” safety failures with mental and physical healthcare, communication systems, emergency responses, drugs and medication raised in its casework.
It also raised concerns about “rising” numbers of natural deaths which are found to relate to “serious failures in healthcare”, adding: “The lack of government action on official recommendations is leading to preventable deaths.”
Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, said: “This report exposes indefensible levels of neglect and despair in prison.
“Officials and ministers repeat the empty words that ‘lessons will be learned’.
“Yet the recommendations of coroners, the prison ombudsman and inspectorate are being systematically ignored. This is a national scandal.”
The findings listed a string of recommendations to improve safety and prevent more deaths including:
– A watchdog to monitor and enforce the implementation of recommendations from investigations, inquests and inquiries on state-related deaths.
– “Significantly” reduce the number of people behind bars.
– More resources for health and welfare services.
Ms Coles added: “In the long term, protecting both prisoners and the public from more harm will require investment in our communities, not ineffective punitive policies.”
She said bereaved families face a “struggle for truth, justice and change” after the report warned relatives have difficulties in accessing minimal legal aid for inquests while prisons “automatically receive millions in public funding”.
Prisons minister Lucy Frazer said: “One of the most difficult things to hear in my role is that another person has taken their own life while in prison and I can’t begin to imagine how families must feel when they get the news.
“Far too many prisoners are self-harming and it’s one of the reasons we introduced the key worker scheme in 2018, supported by the recruitment of 4,400 extra prison officers, so that every offender can get dedicated support and have someone to talk to.
“We’ve also given over 25,000 staff better training to spot and prevent self-harm and are investing an extra £2.75 billion to modernise prisons, combat drug use and improve the environment in which offenders live.”