Prisons seeing record levels of suicides, self-harming and violence

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Suicides, assaults and self-harm in prisons have all reached new record levels, new figures reveal.

There were 354 deaths behind bars in England and Wales last year, including 119 which were apparently self-inflicted.

Self-harm incidents jumped by 23% to 37,784, while there were 25,049 assaults in the 12 months to September - a rise of 31% on the previous year. 

The statistics, released by the Ministry of Justice, underline the scale of the task facing the Government as it attempts to address the jail safety crisis. 

The number of apparent suicides - equivalent to two every week - represented a jump of nearly a third on the previous year.

There were three apparent homicides, which was down from a record high of eight in 2015.

Self-harm also continued to increase, reaching a record high of 37,784 incidents in the year to September - nearly 7,000 more than were recorded in the previous 12 months.

The figures also showed there are now nearly 70 assaults in jails every day. The number of serious attacks has also increased, up by 28% year on year.

There were 6,430 assaults on staff in the 12 months to September 2016 - up 40% on the previous year. Of these, 761 were serious.

A report setting out the figures from the MoJ said: "The rise in assaults since 2012 has coincided with major changes to the regime, operating arrangements and culture in public sector prisons.

"For example, restructuring of the prison estate including staff reductions, which have reduced overall running costs, and an increasing awareness of gang culture and illicit psychoactive drugs in prisons.

"As well as the dangers to both physical and mental health, trading in these illicit drugs can lead to debt, violence and intimidation."

The findings follow a period of huge turbulence for the prisons system. 

Last year thousands of staff walked out in protest over health and safety concerns amid claims that the system was "in meltdown", while a number of serious disturbances erupted in jails. 

In a statement issued following the publication of the statistics, Justice Secretary Liz Truss cautioned that the issues would not be dealt with "in weeks or months".

She said she has been clear that "the violence, self-harm and deaths in our prisons are too high", adding: "I have taken immediate action to stabilise the estate by tackling the drugs, drones and phones that undermine security.

"We are also investing £100 million annually to boost the front line by 2,500 officers.

"These are long-standing issues that will not be resolved in weeks or months but our wholescale reforms will lay the groundwork to transform our prisons, reduce reoffending and make our communities safer."

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said reducing the jail population is the "only realistic way to make our prisons safe in the foreseeable future".

He said: "Another record low in standards of safety should leave no-one in any doubt of the need to relieve the pressure on our failing prison system. We know that the worst outcomes happen in overcrowded prisons."