Maryada Ganeshgarhia, Youth Projects & Communications Intern - 

The number of self-inflicted deaths in prison has risen steadily from 58 in 2010 to 119 in 2016, the highest number since records began in 1978. There has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths in the female estate, up from five in 2015 to 12 in 2016 (the highest on record since 2003). People with mental health conditions (victims of multiple vulnerabilities such as abuse, discrimination, deprivation, poor education and lack of maturity) are mainly found indulging in such self-harming activities. These vulnerable offenders’ special needs and circumstances have come to the fore as a complex social policy issue.

The figures reflect a dismal situation. This also raises doubt and scepticism on the legislation. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to life) places a positive obligation on the State to protect the lives of people who are in the care of the state, including prisoners. In addition to the ECHR, there are other relevant human rights standards which specifically address the treatment of people with mental illness and the treatment of prisoners, such as the UN Principles for the protection of persons with mental illness and the improvement of mental health care, the UN Principles for the treatment of persons under any form of detention, the UN Standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners (the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’) and the European Prison Rules. The legal framework has been structured to help the people with special needs; however the reality depicts something else. A revision of policies is thus required.

Intensive research in this field has highlighted issues like effective risk assessment, access to timely and appropriate support including specialist mental health services, regular family contact, leadership, governance, recruitment and retention of good staff. The active and vigilant human right organisations have recommended some solutions for this problem which demands cooperation of the legal and prison authorities. Amendments like placing a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to specify and maintain a minimum ratio of prison officers to prisoners at each establishment, legal obligation for the Prison services to ensure that prisoners with mental health problem has a key worker et al. Along with this, suggestions have been made to permit affected offenders to stay in a constant touch with their family, and to invite the suicidal victim’s family to the Assessment of Care in Custody and Teamwork reviews for curbing the increasing rate of deaths.  

The people in the prison are offenders, nonetheless humanity and law calls for treatment of everyone with equality, fairness and respect for their dignity. Human rights based approach coupled with forceful implementation and evaluation of the laws can help bring the values of ‘the right to life’ in action.

For further reading please refer to the The Joint Committee on Human Rights report, published on the 2nd May 2017. Seventh Report of Session 2016-17, Mental Health and Deaths in Prison, HL 167  / HC 893.

IARS's book "Listening to Young Women in Police Custody: Mental Health Needs and the Police Response" can be purchased via the IARS Bookstore in both E-book and Paperback format.

(Original image can be found here: