Examination of Witnesses (Questions 322
MONDAY 15 MARCH 2004
Q322 Chairman: Welcome to this meeting
of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I should explain that
this time we were expecting Sir Alistair Graham and Dr David Best
from the Police Complaints Authority. I gather that Sir Alistair
is stuck on a train and his deputy will be coming with Dr David
Best, the Director of Research, later on. We are very grateful
to Phil Wheatley and Nigel Hancock from the Prison Service for
coming at an earlier time. As you know, this inquiry on deaths
in custody has been going for some time. We published the written
evidence that was submitted to us but we consider that the passing
of the Human Rights Act has put a particularly sharp focus on
the question of deaths in custody. It goes without saying that
even before the passing of the Human Rights Act of course any
death in custody was a matter not only of great regret but for
investigation. There is a sharper focus now with Article 2, the
right to life, which obviously imposes a particular responsibility
on those who are responsible for the safe custody of others. Perhaps
I can start with a question about the rates of self-inflicted
deaths. It is a very welcome improvement that suicide rates as
a whole and in England particularly have gone down in recent years
but the rate of suicide in prison is increasing. What conclusions
does the Prison Service draw from this?
Mr Wheatley: Actually the rate
is not increasing. The number is increasing. We are holding a
substantially greater number of prisoners. I do not want to be
complacent about suicide in prison by suggesting that somehow
because the rates are not going all is okay at the moment; that
is not the case at all. Suicide in prison is a relatively rare
event75,000-plus prisoners held for 365 days a year and
I expect on this financial year's figures slightly under 100 people
will have committed suicide. That is 100 too many but it is a
relatively rare event which means that statistically you can end
up with quite a lot of fluctuation. We try and iron that out by
regarding our best measure as a three-year rolling average and,
looking at the three-year rolling average rate per 100,000 prisoners,
it peaked in 1998 at 133 per 100,000 and it is currently running
at 129 per 100,000. It has dropped slightly. I do not want to
make too much of that. I have got figures that go back to the
beginning of 1995. The rates are remarkably steady with some minor
fluctuations. I do not think that entitles me to say that there
is no problem but it means that the rate is not increasing sharply.
The numbers are increasing sharply because we are holding a much
larger number of prisoners.
Q323 Chairman: I understand that
suicide prevention training is not mandatory for prison staff.
Why is that?
Mr Wheatley: It is mandatory for
all new staff. Everybody who enters the service has training about
our suicide prevention policies and how to implement them and
the importance of them. We have stopped having mandatory training
by which we at the centre say that in every establishment this
training must be done, primarily because we want to empower our
governors to train in the things that matter in that particular
location. As an example, in open prisons, where there have been
very few, if any, suicides, it probably does not make sense to
make that the biggest thing to train in, or security training,
but training in resettlement probably is the biggest issue. In
local prisons where the bulk of freshly received prisoners arrive
and where probably the largest majority of prisoners have got
other problems, particularly mental health problems and drug misuse
problems, it makes very good sense to train in suicide prevention,
particularly for those staff who are going to be most closely
involved in that work. We are trying to move away from a centralised
sheep-dip approach to training, if I can put it that way, to a
much more targeted approach. We are also devising additional training
that we can do with staff around suicide prevention. Just saying
we have got some batch suicide prevention training, putting prison
officers or other staff through it, is not adequate. We are trying
to understand a very complex phenomenon and intervene in difficult
circumstances and that requires more than that sort of generalised
Q324 Chairman: Is it your understanding
that in local prisons where there may be particular problems they
are doing this work?
Mr Wheatley: Yes. My understanding
of most local prisons is that suicide prevention is a major part
of their business. It is particularly in those places where we
are piloting a new approach on suicide prevention, but actually
it is crucial to all governors at local prisons and trying to
concentrate on doing things that reduce suicide and it has been
highlighted for all governors as a real priority for the service.
I am slightly ill at ease with targets in an area like this, but
there are targets. It has been highlighted both by me and my predecessor
as something that is an important priority and something that
is crucial for the service if we are to deliver a humane and decent
Q325 Chairman: You corrected me just
now in relation to the rate of suicides in prison but it does
appear from the figures you gave that it is pretty static, that
there has not been a great deal of improvement. Is this an indication
that the Safer Custody Programme is failing to have the kind of
impact you had hoped for?
Mr Wheatley: No. I think it is
an indication that the problems we are dealing with have changed
and have got worse over time. To some extent we are having to
work very hard to stand still or get some slight reduction. The
Safer Custody Programme is also targeting a number of establishments
more specifically and substantial additional investment is going
into improving the way we deal with prisoners in those prisons.
We have seen where that pays off. The early indications are that
that piloting is producing a reduction in the rate of suicide
in those establishments with some very measurable improvements
in the way in which staff in prisons are interacting, which we
also think plays a part in reducing suicide. Over a period of
time without doubt we are seeing more prisoners coming in with
substantial drug problems and I think that arriving in custody,
being arrested and remanded in custody or awaiting sentence, depending
on what particular status you are, is for anybody a very disturbing
time. Most people did not plan on this happening. It was not what
they expected to happen. It disrupts a whole series of existing
plans and hopes they had. It is a time when people are having
hard work coping with that change and what it means for their
life outside and the previous things they had wanted to do. If
you add on top of that they are also detoxing because they have
a substantial heroin habit, or indeed quite often multiple drug
abuse, and they are coping with the effect of coming off drugs,
that makes it much more difficult for them to think, "I can
get through this". To me the key in reducing suicideand
I have been criticised for saying thisis to make prison
feel bearable. You have to feel when you come in that you can
cope with this. If they do not feel they can cope with it there
is a risk that people will turn to suicide.
Q326 Mr Stinchcombe: I wonder if
I could clarify the figures that you gave us on the rates? I think
you told us that there was a rate of round about 120-130 suicides
per 100,000 prisoners.
Mr Wheatley: It peaked at 133
and is running now at 129. At its lowest, and it is a three-year
rolling average and I am looking at a graph which is not the easiest
of things to do, it was about 125. I will have to check the lowest
Q327 Mr Stinchcombe: Are they suicides
or self-inflicted deaths?
Mr Wheatley: They are self-inflicted
deaths. We do not differentiate between things that the coroner
gives a suicide verdict on and other occasions when people have
killed themselves in some self-inflicted way.
Q328 Mr Stinchcombe: I wonder if
you could drop us a note with those figures because the figures
we have previously been given, for example, for 2002 and 2003,
were that there was an actual rate of 146.9 per 100,000?
Mr Wheatley: That is not the smoothed
average. I am giving you the three-year rolling average. There
are much sharper fluctuations if you simply take a year's figures.
Q329 Mr Stinchcombe: That is helpful.
Secondly, can you tell me what the key performance indicators
are for self-inflicted deaths?
Mr Hancock: It is to reduce it
to 112.8 per 100,000 prisoners by April of this year, which is
a target that we will miss. It was a very ambitious target. Indeed,
in the community the government set a wider target for a similar
reduction over about a ten-year period, so we just missed the
target that we were setting.
Q330 Lord Campbell of Alloway: You
said, sir, something about no differentiation if somebody dies
in custody between just dying and specifically committing suicide.
Is that becauseand I am not criticising youwhen
someone dies you would not necessarily know whether it was suicide,
and if there is an obvious suicide because somebody is strung
up with a blanket or something like that, do you record that as
a suicide or do you wait for the coroner's verdict and then collect
your figures for suicide, if you have any, from the coroner's
verdict? How is it done?
Mr Wheatley: We do not keep and
use in any of our performance data figures on suicide as such.
We keep figures on self-inflicted deaths. In any circumstances
where there appears to be clear evidence on the face of the situation,
we classify it as a self-inflicted death and we do not correct
afterwards with the coroner's verdict. Sometimes we get coroners'
verdicts that suggest that somebody has accidentally killed themselves
and they did not mean to, but if they have done something that
they did themselves which led to their death we would classify
that as a self-inflicted death. We give ourselves a slightly higher
challenge than other agencies by doing that but it does save us
waiting for inquest results so we can use the current data. Also,
from our point of view because we regard trying to keep people
alive as crucialthe right to life is crucialit stops
us saying that some of these events are not real suicides. They
are self-inflicted deaths in our custody.
Q331 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Real
suicides and unreal suicides are most difficult terms.
Mr Wheatley: Yes.
Q332 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Is
the truth that there are no real records as to the number of people
who commit suicide in prison?
Mr Wheatley: We can construct
from coroners' verdicts, because we report the coroners' verdicts,
in how many cases a suicide verdict was brought in, but we do
not concentrate on that as we try to keep people alive and give
people the right to life.
Q333 Lord Campbell of Alloway: So
your figures are an in-house interpretation of coroners' verdicts?
Mr Wheatley: No. What we are saying
is that this is where somebody has caused their death. It is self-inflicted.
Their motivation, which is what the coroner very often looks at,
we do not pay attention to.
Q334 Lord Campbell of Alloway: So
you in fact have no internal recordsand I am not saying
you should have anyas to those who commit suicide in prison?
Mr Wheatley: For those who we
think intended to commit suicide we rely entirely on the coroner's
Mr Hancock: It may help if I say
that for a recent year, 2001, we revisited all our internal classifications
because we have a very broad definition and it may be one reason
why rates and numbers in the Prison Service are a lot higher than
in the community. In 2001 we looked at 71 deaths which we regarded
as self-inflicted and compared them with coroners' verdicts, and
48 of those, two-thirds, would have got a suicide or open verdict
in the community and hence be classified as a suicide. In a sense,
by being very inclusive, we over-classify. We are about a third
more than would be the case in the community.
Q335 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Precisely.
That is what I was getting at. It may be very difficult not to
over-classify. It may be impossible to have a contemporaneous
record. What you do is the best you can and that is an approximation?
Mr Wheatley: That is right. We
have, for instance, outstanding inquests on suicides that occurred
a number of years ago, which we would not be able to include at
Q336 Lord Campbell of Alloway: You
said "we". By whom and how are these figures, whatever
they are, produced? Who produces them and are records kept? Who
Mr Wheatley: It is done by the
Prison Service. Nigel, as part of headquarters, collates the information
which is reported through our incident reporting system in which
every death is reported. It is classified at headquarters on the
basis of reports from establishments and every death that occurs
in establishments you will not be surprised to know is reported.
Q337 Lord Campbell of Alloway: I
see. It is done by headquarters away from the prison on a report
received from the prison?
Mr Wheatley: Yes.
Q338 Lord Campbell of Alloway: And
the report, as we agreed, cannot be conclusive.
Mr Wheatley: The way we seek to
deal with that is to be inclusive, not to exclude out but to include
in. We over-estimate the number of suicides on a tighter version
as a result of coroners' inquest verdicts.
Q339 Chairman: If there is anything
further on the subject which you would like to send to us please
do so. It would be very helpful. Can you tell me what training
the Prison Service provides for staff on the Convention on Human
Mr Wheatley: We provide training
for all our new staff as they join, so prison officers have that
as part of their basic training. As the convention came into English
law we gave fresh training to our senior managers, governors and
area managers, and we also concentrated some of that training
on high security prisons where there are probably rather more
challenges than in other parts of the estate. We tried to ensure
that we trained the key people, legal services officers in particular,
and we train new staff as they come in.