Self-harm incidents in women’s prisons hit new record high

The number of self-harm incidents in women’s prisons has hit another record high after rising by 8% in a year.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show there were 12,443 recorded in the year to September – up from 11,482 in the previous period, taking it to the highest level in a decade.

By contrast, the number of self-harm incidents in male prisons has fallen by around 7% from 50,174 to 46,427.

Although the total number self-harm incidents has decreased across prisons, down 5% to 58,870, the figures indicate an increase over the summer months and a particularly dramatic rise in women’s prisons.

The MoJ report said: “In the most recent quarter there were 14,167 self-harm incidents, up 9% on the previous quarter, comprising a 5% increase in male establishments and a 24% increase in female establishments.”

The total number of deaths in custody for the whole of 2020 rose by 6% to 318, seven of which were women.

Overall 67 deaths were self-inflicted, two of which were women.

This is down 21% from the previous 12 months, the data for the year to December shows.

The news comes a week after the department announced it would build hundreds of extra prison cells in a bid to improve conditions in women’s jails.

Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women In Prison, said the figures signalled a “worryingly rapid decline of mental health”, adding: “These statistics are a devastating reminder of the damaging impact of Covid-19 on women in prison.

“Many women haven’t seen their families in person for over a year, and are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

“It doesn’t have to be like this – the Government can honour its promise and resume its early release scheme allowing women to safely isolate in the community.

“For people not eligible, we need to prioritise the vaccinations so women can spend more time outside their cells and visits can eventually resume safely.”

Prison staff at HM Peterborough (Chris Radburn/PA)
Prison staff at HM Peterborough (Chris Radburn/PA)

Some 500 prison places are to be built in existing women’s prisons to increase the number of single cells available, which could allow more women to serve their sentences in open jail conditions.

But Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest, warned this could lead to “more unnecessary suffering and harm” and “flies in the face” of Government promises to cut the number of women behind bars.

Outdated cells could also be shut in future if the prison population reduces, the MoJ said.

The plan could also see inmates allowed overnight visits with their children while they prepare for life at home after release – although this has prompted calls for women to be allowed temporary release for family time instead.

The department has pledged around £2 million in funding for 38 charities which help steer women away from crime by helping to address mental health problems, which is said to affect around half of women behind bars, and drugs – which a similar proportion have a history of taking.

At the same time it set out plans for a “whole-system approach” to give women a better chance of turning their lives around – which tasks a range of public bodies with tackling the situation.

Assaults behind bars also plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic but have started to rise again, according to the figures.

There were 24,407 assaults in the year to September, down 27% from the previous period. In the most recent quarter, such incidents rose by 9% to 4,956 incidents.

Particularly, attacks on staff dropped 16% to 8,476 over the 12 months to September.