Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 322 - 339)



  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 event—75,000-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 training.

  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 service.

  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 suicide—and I have been criticised for saying this—is 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 point.

  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 because—and I am not criticising you—when 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 crucial—the right to life is crucial—it 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 records—and I am not saying you should have any—as 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 verdict.

  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 the moment.

  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 does it?

  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 Rights?

  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.

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