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Why Are So Many British Prisoners Killing Themselves?

Seventy-four self-inflicted deaths were recorded in English and Welsh prisons last year, the highest rate since 2007. This trend has continued with 32 more deaths between January 1 and May 12 this year. Overall, deaths in prison custody reached an all...
July 2, 2014, 9:00am

The main entrance to HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Photo via

Kevin Scarlett was found hanged in his cell at HMP Woodhill on the 22nd of May, 2013. He was 30 years old and had a long history of mental health problems, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was also a regular self-harmer and had made a number of attempts to kill himself in the past. Despite all this, the staff at Woodhill felt he posed little risk of self-harm and suicide.


Scarlett was one of 74 self-inflicted deaths recorded in English and Welsh prisons last year, the highest rate since 2007. This trend has continued with 32 more deaths between the first of January and the 12th of May this year. Overall, deaths in prison custody reached an all-time high in 2013. Reform groups and trade unions have blamed a combination of factors for this rise, ranging from prison overpopulation and bad morale to poor mental health provisions and budget cuts.

Soon after entering Woodhill—a category-A prison in Milton Keynes—on the 14th of January 2013, Scarlett was placed on the "basic" regime, keeping him confined to his cell for 22 hours a day. He was unable talk to members of his family, watch TV, or listen to the radio. At that time it had become common practice at the prison to place a sign on the doors of inmates on basic, warning other prisoners that they would be punished if they communicated with them.

After a three-day inquest into Scarlett’s death, the jury was highly critical of Woodhill and returned a verdict of accidental suicide. They found that Scarlett’s risk of self-harm and suicide had not been properly assessed by prison staff, that he should not have been left alone in a double cell, and that he should have been allocated to a safer cell.

Scarlett’s step-brother Lee Jarman, 33, sat through the proceedings at Milton Keynes’s Coroners’ Court from start-to-finish. “One of Kevin’s coping mechanisms was to talk to people, and he was denied that,” says Jarman. “We believe his suicide was a cry for help.”


After committing a series of low-level offenses, Scarlett committed the crime that put him inside Woodhill in December of 2012. Armed with a hammer and a dumbbell, Scarlett and his accomplice, Brendon Gray, 29, looted two shops in Northamptonshire, making off with less than $10,000 in cash.

Scarlett was on remand at the time of his death and intended to plead guilty to a charge of armed robbery.

Lee Jarman

“I tried to get Kevin sectioned six months before he committed the crime,” remembers Jarman. “It’s very difficult, because as a family you can see the person you love falling apart. You can go to doctors and say they need to help this person, but if they’re not willing to do that it can become impossible. Kevin had been on care in the community for years, and it wasn’t working.”

Unable to communicate with Scarlett for the whole of his time at Woodhill, Jarman and the rest of the family didn’t know the extent of his difficulties inside the prison. In fact, it wasn’t until a family liaison officer knocked on his mother’s door to let her know of her son’s death that they were aware of any problems.

As the number of self-inflicted deaths in English and Welsh prisons has increased, the Prison Service has become characterized by harsher sentences, budget cuts, and a rising population.

Eoin McLennan-Murray is the president of the Prison Governors Association and serving governor at HMP Coldingley in Surrey. “I don’t think there’s a simple explanation for why the deaths have gone up," he begins. "We’ve had spikes before, and we’ve had troughs. It’s possible there’s a correlation between the rise in self-inflicted deaths and a combination of things that are happening in the Prison Service at the moment. So let’s look at the things that are happening.


“We’ve had a significant reduction in resources. We’ve had major restructuring, both of the management and of the personnel in the service. We’ve had a series of prison closures and a rise in population. The combination of all these things has had an impact on staff. They feel less secure in their employment; they have to work harder and be more adaptable; they have to take on new roles. We’ve also got problems with recruitment, and there’s been a pay freeze for goodness knows how long. That’s a toxic mix in terms of how it plays with morale.”

The Prison Officers Association agrees that the increase in self-inflicted deaths is symptomatic of broader problems. “The Prison Service is in crisis,” a POA spokesman tells me. “The only way to deal with this is to have root and branch review of all the underlying problems. A self-inflicted death is a tragedy for all concerned. Due to budget cuts and staff shortfalls, the numbers have increased.”

At the time of writing there are 85,228 people in prisons in England and Wales, over 9,000 more than the Prison Service's own estimation for how many people can be kept in safe accommodation. This number is set to increase, with already overcrowded prisons told to take on an extra 440 inmates by August.

Responding to the news, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Program that he was “very concerned,” before admitting the system was not coping well with the increase. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling responded to Hardwick’s comments by stating that finding space for new prisoners would just mean “a few hundred prisoners more will have to share a cell over the next few weeks.”

Deborah Coles

For Deborah Coles, co-director of the prison reform charity INQUEST, the spat between Hardwick and Grayling was “shameful.”


"The prison inspectorate is the prison watchdog," she tells me. "It was set up because the importance of having independent inspections was recognized. It smacks of complacency and arrogance when you have a chief inspector warning of a significant risk to inmates and staff, only for the justice minister to completely dismiss these informed comments. There is a complete disconnect between what is happening on the ground and the government, and that is a recipe for disaster. Grayling is in complete denial about the serious problems facing the Prison Service.”

Added to this atmosphere of cut backs and over-crowding, government policy in recent years has taken a more punitive attitude when it comes to the Prison Service. Changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme announced by the government in the winter of 2013 have meant that prisoners no longer receive their privileges from good behavior alone; now, they have to work longer hours and be shown to be engaging in “purposeful activity.”

Books and other basic items can no longer be received by inmates in the post, while many objects now have to be purchased by prisoners using their own often meager wages.

The Prison Reform Trust has warned that these changes amounted to “punishment without purpose,” saying the number of prisoners making contact with its advice service has trebled since the policy was announced. The Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody is currently investigating the impact of these changes.


While prison life has become harsher, mental health services have been put under critical strain, and efforts to change the way that prisoners with mental health conditions are treated have not been pursued; Lord Keith Bradley’s review— which recommended a radical new approach to the way the justice system treats its prisoners with learning disabilities and mental health conditions—was welcomed in principle by the Labor government when published in 2009, but never acted upon.

In January of last year, a national inspection found that progress had not been made on the report’s key recommendation—“to facilitate the earliest possible diversion of offenders with mental disorders from the criminal justice system” by having psychiatric staff at police stations.

Deborah Coles claims the “current situation can only get worse.”

“It is symptomatic of a government whose criminal justice policies have increased the prison population, and will continue to do," she says. "With austerity and cuts to frontline mental health services, you've got increasing numbers of people getting sucked up into the criminal justice system, which—quite frankly, in many situations—can do nothing more than warehouse people. You've got extremely vulnerable men, women, and children existing in prisons with extremely limited and austere regimes, with the ever present risk of suicide and self-harm.”

Kevin Scarlett

On hearing the news of her son’s death, Kevin Scarlett’s mother, Patricia, was heartbroken. After the inquest she spoke of feeling like the whole process had made her son seem like a “faceless individual, represented as just another difficult person who could not be helped.”


She has since moved some 300 miles away from the family home in Milton Keynes. Jarman lets her know when he's doing media appearances to discuss the case, but she likes to stay out of the limelight. “There are too many memories for her here,” he explains. “Whether good or bad, there are just too many.”

Since his step-brother’s death, Jarman has worked with INQUEST to bring attention to the issue of the lack of mental health provisions in prisons. He is unable to work a job because he's currently undergoing treatment for bladder cancer, and Scarlett’s case has become his life.

He is tall and skinny with a welcoming personality. When discussing the case, he becomes passionate, though not emotional. Having told the story of his step-brother’s death so often, he seems to have gained some distance from it.

“This issue has given me a focus. Through the inquest there were so many failings,” he explains. “Prisons aren’t geared up for serious mental health patients. Prison guards aren’t trained in mental health; they’re trained to keep them safe. So we don’t blame the prison officers—they’re in a difficult position. They’re under-staffed, under-funded, without the relevant training.

“At the end of the day, it’s the government that sets the budget, and it’s the government that is ultimately responsible for the running of these services. Obviously these people have done bad things and need to be punished, but the Prison Service and the government have a duty of care to these people while they're serving their sentence. Prisoners should get the same treatment that you or I would get, and the truth is they don’t.”


Concluding the inquest into Scarlett’s death, Senior Coroner Tom Osborne stated that he would be writing to NHS England and the National Offender Management Service to raise his concerns that HMP Woodhill was not able to properly assess Kevin.

The visitors' center at HMP Woodhill. Photo via

David Hunter died at Woodhill on the 26th of May 2013, just four days after Scarlett’s death. There were two more self-inflicted deaths at the prison before the year was out. Only Wormwood Scrubs, which has a much larger population, experienced more self-inflicted deaths in 2013.

A report, published in May, giving the results of an unannounced inspection of Woodhill painted a bleak picture of life inside the prison. Inspectors found that the number of recorded assaults and self-harm incidents was double that of other local prisons. The relationship between staff and prisoners was said to have weakened, and inspectors found there was a high use of force at the prison. The prison’s response to the five self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection in January of 2012 was said to have “lacked rigor.

Responding to the inspectors' findings, Michael Spurr—chief executive officer of the Ministry of Justice’s National Offender Management Service (NOMS)—said, “The governor and his staff are working hard to reduce incidents of violence and to improve rehabilitation—they will use the recommendations in this report to accelerate that work.”

In response to the findings made in this investigation, a spokesperson from the Prison Service said, "We are committed to reducing the number of deaths in custody and are carefully investigating the rise in self-inflicted deaths. We are applying strenuous efforts to learn from each death and are providing further resources and support to improve the safer custody work in prisons.

"This work includes an ongoing  review of how people at risk of suicide or self-harm in under-18 Young Offender Institutions are managed, and an independent review into self-inflicted deaths amongst 18–24 year olds. These reviews will help identify learning points that can be applied across all age groups."

After Scarlett's death, Jarman is less optimistic about any of those apparent changes being made. “Mental health and prisons have always been taboo issues in this country, so put those two issues together and it becomes very difficult to find a solution,” he says.

McLennan-Murray is frank about what he thinks of the current state of the Prison Service, and coming from someone with his stature, it's a worrying omen of what could be coming.

“We’ve reached a tipping point,” he warns. “The change won’t come from a piece of legislation—it might not even be planned—but it will be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, the spark that sets off the explosion. The things that keep a prison stable, that maintain the cooperation of the prisoners and staff, are being undermined all the time. We are edging towards the likelihood of greater instability.”

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