Solitary confinement suicides in British prisons at 9-year high

More prisoners held in segregation units are taking their own lives

Source: Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia


Suicides among British prisoners held in solitary confinement are at their highest in nearly a decade. Many who have taken their own lives were identified by prison authorities as being at risk of self-harm or suicide.


In 2013-14 eight prisoners killed themselves in prison segregation units according to a new report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO).

Four of of those who committed suicide had been assessed as at risk of suicide and self-harm. One was a diagnosed schizophrenic. Another prisoner with a history of depression and self-harm asked for a book to occupy himself, but was told he could not have one. He was found dead in the morning. 

Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Twenty-eight prisoners took their own lives while being held in solitary confinement units between January 2007 and March 2014. Nine of them were subject to self-harm and suicide procedures at the time of death.

The Probation and Prison Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen CBE, said he had highlighted the problem before:

The Prison Service’s own instructions  recognise the potentially damaging effect of segregation on those who may be at risk of suicide and self-harm and I have previously raised concerns about the number of deaths of prisoners who were known by staff to be vulnerable and at risk of harming themselves, yet were still held in segregation conditions.

Mr Newcomen is not the only one to draw attention to the issue. The Chief Inspector of Prisons identified the same issue in each of his last three annual reports

But let’s back-up for a minute and examine the basics.


How does solitary confinement work in the UK? 

Well firstly, by having a different name. It’s not called solitary confinement, but segregation – when a prisoner is removed from association with other prisoners.

Prisoners in segregation generally spend most of the time alone in their cell, leaving only to shower, use the telephone and exercise for a short period. They  usually don’t have much of their personal property and are unlikely to have televisions.

Prisoners can be segregated for one of three reasons:

  1. Good order and discipline: if inmate is considered disruptive, difficult to manage or unsafe for
  2. Protection and safety: when under threat from other prisoners.
  3. Disciplinary offence: serving a punishment for breaking prison rules.

Most prisons have a dedicated segregation unit, sometimes known as the care and separation unit or CSU, but some prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in their own cells.

It is impossible to say how many prisoners are kept in segregation at any one time because there are no centralised records.

Recent research found that 11 per cent of prisoners had spent a night in a segregation unit; the figure rose to  23 per cent of young adults behind bars.

Prisoners with learning disabilities are more than three times as likely to have spent time in segregation.


What lessons need to be learnt? 

Here are the conclusions that the Prison and Probation Ombudsman drew from his investigations:

  1. Special accommodation and protective clothing should only be used if absolutely necessary and after all other options have been exhausted. If they are used, an enhanced case review should be held straight away, staff should engage actively with the prisoner and observe them at least five times an hour, and plans should be made to return the prisoner to standard accommodation and normal clothing as soon as possible.
  2. Staff should fully understand and follow the mandatory procedures for safeguarding segregated prisoners set out in prison rules. They should be aware of their personal responsibilities for protecting prisoners, particularly those identified as at risk of suicide and self-harm.
  3. Segregated prisoners should be provided with the means to occupy themselves, at minimum reading material and a radio.
  4. Staff should base decisions about fitness for segregation on the prisoner’s full mental health history and other relevant factors that could potentially compromise their ability to cope, not on current demeanour alone.
  5. Lengthy periods of segregation are to be avoided. When unavoidable, Segregation Review Boards should be held regularly to assess how well the prisoner is coping, to plan for their relocation to more appropriate accommodation, and to develop a careplan to help prevent deterioration in mental health.
  6. Exceptional circumstances to justify the segregation of a prisoner subject to self-harm and suicide procedures should actually be exceptional. All other options should have been exhausted and the reasons for this clearly documented.
  7. When there are exceptional reasons to justify a prisoner at risk of suicide and self-harm being held in segregation, additional required safeguards should be followed, including holding a mental health assessment and a self-harm and suicide review within 24 hours.


Tell us more… 

We will be publishing more on suicide in prison and segregation soon. Please tell us what you know about the topics or what you would like to see covered here.

One Comment on “Solitary confinement suicides in British prisons at 9-year high”

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