Five British prisoners who committed suicide in solitary confinementPosted: June 25, 2015
The human cost of prison segregation units
A prisoner with a history of depression and self-harm held in a segregation unit asked a guard for a book to occupy himself, but was told he could not have as the prison was on night watch. He was found dead in the morning.
Unfortunately his tragic case is not an isolated one. Last week we learnt that suicides among British prisoners held in solitary confinement are at their highest in nearly a decade.
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 by the prison service as at risk of suicide and self-harm.
This is not a new issue. The Chief Inspector of Prisons highlighted it in each of his last three annual reports.
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.
But what exactly is happening? Who is being affected and why? The five case studies below put a human face on this tragic situation.
The prisoners names have been withheld, so they are referred to as the letters A to E.
Five suicides in UK prison segregation units
CASE STUDY ONE
The PPO’s investigation into the suicide of Mr A “uncovered numerous procedural, organisational and management failings” and a disciplinary investigation was recommended.
Mr A was found in a part of the prison where he should not have been. Staff reported that he seemed very frightened and was shaking before being put into segregation. He complained that his cell was dirty and smelly, and banged and kicked the cell door. Shortly afterwards, he harmed himself by cutting his wrist with a plastic knife.
Staff began suicide and self-harm prevention procedures, but a nurse assessed Mr A as fit for segregation. He threatened to smash up his cell and harm himself again if he was not moved elsewhere. Prison staff responded by removing his clothing, standard bedding and all non-fixed furniture from his cell leaving him with only a mattress, a tear resistant tunic and a blanket.
But prison officers did not follow proper procedures. Under prison rules, Mr A should have been observed a minimum of five times an hour and staff should have made every effort to engage with him. But the PPO’s investigation raised uncertainty about how thoroughly the checks were carried out and found little evidence that staff had any meaningful interaction with Mr A. They also failed to hold a required review after his cell had been stripped bare.
Later that evening, Mr A was found hanged in his cell, after he had managed to make a ligature from his tear resistant blanket.
CASE STUDY TWO
Mr B was placed on a basic regime after being identified as part of a group who allegedly seriously assaulted another prisoner. The next day he refused to return to his cell and said that other prisoners on the wing were threatening him.
Before he came to prison, Mr B had been receiving treatment for depression. He had taken an overdose four months earlier, and had cut his wrists several years before. But these factors were not taken into consideration when he was locked in his cell for most of the day. He had only a short break to exercise, shower and make phone calls.
At the initial segregation healthcare screen, a nurse deemed Mr B fit for segregation and raised no concerns. Two days later, at a segregation review, Mr B reported that he was happy with the current situation.
He had no TV and little to occupy himself. Mr B asked another prisoner if he could borrow a radio, but did not manage to get one. He also asked an officer for a book to help occupy him.
As the prison was in ‘night state’ (when officers are not allowed to open cell doors without authority unless in an emergency), the officer told him he would have to wait until morning. Sadly, in the morning he was found hanged.
CASE STUDY THREE
Mr C claimed to be at threat from other prisoners and asked to be moved from the wing to the segregation unit. A review took place the following week, where it was decided that there was no threat to him from other prisoners and that he should be moved back to a normal wing.
Mr C refused to move from the segregation unit and subsequently remained there for over three months. During his time in segregation, Mr C’s mental health deteriorated. On several occasions staff found him to be tearful and he told them he was struggling to cope.
In spite of this, a number of subsequent Segregation Review Boards continued to authorise his segregation. There was little evidence to suggest that a structured plan was put together to better support his mental health and combat the detrimental effects of his segregation.
An unsuccessful attempt was made to move him to another establishment before he was taken to the Healthcare Unit for a period of reprieve from segregation. Due to his perceived threat to other prisoners however, he was locked in his cell in the healthcare unit, which effectively resulted in a continuation of segregation conditions.
Mr C stayed in the healthcare unit for over two weeks, before hanging himself in his cell. During this time, he told staff a number of times that he was feeling low, was hearing voices, and had thoughts of suicide.
CASE STUDY FOUR
When Mr D, who was five foot tall and weighed six stones, requested vulnerable prisoner status two days after arriving at prison. He believed he was under threat because of his size and because other prisoners knew about his background.
He was put in the segregation unit for a week before being moved to the vulnerable prisoners unit, where he remained until an incident in which he threatened to jump from an upper landing. He was subsequently moved back to the segregation unit.
Staff opened self-harm and suicide procedures after he threatened to jump and when he said that he was having serious thoughts of self-harm. But they concluded that there was no other suitable location to hold him.
Two days after he was moved to the segregation unit for the second time, Mr D was found hanged in his cell.
CASE STUDY FIVE
Mr E, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been moved into a segregation cell for his own protection, despite having a serious mental health condition and being subject to self-harm and suicide procedures. He remained in segregation for 12 days before killing himself.
During this period he did not have a mental health assessment and no exceptional circumstances were identified for his location in the segregation unit. The authorisation forms for his continued stay in the segregation unit contained inaccurate information and no one at the segregation reviews questioned the appropriateness of his location or why he had been kept there for so long, although evidence of his declining mental state should have been apparent.
Do you know of any other cases that we have missed? Or any other details about segregation that are not being talked about? If so, please let us know.