Self-harm rates in female prisons reaches all time high, as charity calls for better mental health support for inmates

26 October 2023, 12:17 | Updated: 26 October 2023, 12:58

HMP Woodhill is among the prisons to have been flagged with high rates of self-harm.
HMP Woodhill is among the prisons to have been flagged with high rates of self-harm. Picture: Alamy
Lillie Almond

By Lillie Almond

Self-harm rates in female prisons reached an all time high over the last year, according to new figures released by the Ministry of Justice, as observers raised the alarm about prisoners' mental health.

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Officials said that over the last 12-month period, the rate of recorded self-harm incidents in female prisons increased by 63% to a new peak, compared to a much smaller increase of 3% among male prisoners.

The self-harm rate in female prisons is now more than eleven times higher than in male prisons.

There are signs that self-harm may have peaked: the last quarter saw an 11% decrease in self-harm in female prisons, compared with the previous three months. Officials said this was the first quarter-on-quarter decrease in the female estate since the fourth quarter of 2021.

Some 23 people took their own lives in the most recent three-month period in prisons in England and Wales, a 28% increase from the previous quarter.

It comes after the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB), which report on the quality of care for people in detention across the UK, raised concerns about prisoners with extreme mental health conditions at HMP Peterborough.

The IMB said that some prisoners went days, or in some cases weeks, without their prescribed medication because of processing delays.

“Prison staff have no mental health training, and although support is provided by on-site mental health professionals, treatment options that would be available in mental health facilities are lacking," the watchdog added.

They also said that “strong support was seen being given to prisoners who intentionally injure themselves.” Officials added that “violence is assertively managed by prison staff.”

Read more: 'Miracle' more mistakes not happening in prisons as Scottish jails slammed in report

Read more: UK government to rent prison spaces abroad as overcrowding reaches breaking point

Separately, Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, wrote in an urgent notification in August that HMP Woodhill, a high security prison in Milton Keynes - was "unsafe" and had "the highest rate of reported self-harm in the adult male estates".

Michelle has a son there, who she says recently tried to take his own life, told LBC: "It’s very, very, very, very heartbreaking - it’s stressful - there’s days when I cry.

“When I heard my son telling me goodbye that time, to then still be let down, knowing that my son, and others - are still struggling. It’s hard, there’s times when I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, because I worry about my son. I want my son to come out there alive, I’ve expressed it to the prison so many times.

“I don’t want to bring my son out of prison in a bodybag.

“If they don’t come out in a bodybag, they’re coming out with worse mental health than they went in with.

“And the way the prison system’s built, it’s us on the outside that have to try and get through it with them. We know our kids are doing the sentences, (or our family members) but we’re also doing it on the outside.”

Concerns about understaffing, overcrowding and their impacts have also been raised by charity Nacro, which supports a range of people - including some in the justice system.

Helen Berresford, Nacros' director of external engagement, said that mental health training for prison staff needed improving.

“We already see high rates of self harm, we see high rates of suicide, we see high levels of violence in prisons - we absolutely need to tackle this, to make sure we bring those down and we give people the best chance at a second chance," she said.

“It’s a combination of more investments and more treatment availability. It’s definitely training for staff - so there is a level of training already, but I would say more, and ongoing training.

“And then, the whole prison environment - and looking at that, which is about the kind of, tackling overcrowding. I would definitely say that overcrowding will be making this worse.

“I mean, it’s absolutely going to be having an impact - because you can’t access the level of service you might want to access; prisons are more difficult to work in, and to be in.”

Replying to the chief inspector of prisons’ urgent notification about HMP Woodhill, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said in September: “The site’s Safety Team will also be strengthened through four additional staff members for a period of 24 months to help stabilise the establishment.

"Two additional temporary staff will be recruited for a minimum of 18 months to act as floorwalkers, who will build knowledge, confidence and capability and improve practice in the investigation of violence and safeguarding for those at risk of self-harm."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The safety of all staff and prisoners is our priority, which is why we ensure the most vulnerable prisoners have access to the round-the-clock care and mental health services.

"We are working tirelessly to ensure our hardworking staff are protected through our £100m security investment, X-ray body scanners specialist prison dogs and body-worn cameras.”

Those feeling distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK

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