Reducing prison population only way to reduce ‘shameful’ death rates, urge campaigners

Same mistakes being made across policing and prison system, Inquest director says

deborah coles


Mentally ill people are four times more likely to die after being subjected to police force, the police watchdog found this week.

A report published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on 8 March, found those with mental health problems are more likely to be restrained by police officers, be subjected to force while in custody and experience multiple uses of force.

Deborah Coles, Director of Inquest, a charity that advises experts and the bereaved on contentious deaths in custody, told PWUK that lessons over safety are not being learned. “The figures are extremely damning and concerning,” she said.

Basic failings come up time and again at inquests around the country – a lack of communication, lack of transparency and mistakes not being learned from.”

To improve the “shameful” situation it is imperative we reduce the number of people coming into contact with police in the first place, Ms Coles contested. Improving social care and services would facilitate this, she said.

The charity director also called on the government to improve its transparency to avoid mistakes being repeated.

“Our work has shown that there is an appalling lack of accountability in the justice system,” she said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Just as with sensitive powers like stop and search and mental health detention, police use of force warrants proper accountability and transparency.

“The Government is clear that the use of force by police officers in any circumstances must be lawful, proportionate and necessary.”

“The spokesperson added, “There has been considerable progress through a number of initiatives to improve the way the police and their partners respond to vulnerable people experiencing a mental health crisis Including the less frequent use of police cells as a place of safety for those needing a mental health assessment.”


In context

Ms Coles said the safety problems were not confined to police custody but “endemic” in the criminal justice system.

Not only have deaths in prison increased steadily over the past 25 years, so too have the rate of deaths per 1,000 prisoners.

Click on the image to expand:

Deaths in prison 1984 - 2014

Rising: Deaths and death rates in prison are steadily increasing

Suicide rates are also are on the rise:

Suicides in England and Wales prison 1984 - 2014

“These deaths are a direct consequence of flawed criminal justice policies – overly punitive sentencing and failing to recognise that prison should be a last resort.”

“Prison is seen as the default for failings in public health and equality. The government must stop using prison as a dumping ground.

“There are many people in prison who simply should not be. These people are there for non-violent or minor offences,” she said.

Michael Gove Conservative Party conference 2015

Gove at this year’s Conservative party conference. Photo: The Conservative Party

But last week the Justice Secretary Michael Gove insisted he could implement prison reform without reducing the number of prisoners. He told the Guardian:

“I’m confident that we can keep people in safe and decent circumstances in prisons which are at or near capacity without needing to manage down the population.”

Ms Coles slammed Gove for refusing to address the population size, which has almost doubled from 45,000 in 1990 to almost 86,000 today.

“Prisons are absolutely full to the rafters. Prisons are a place where safety and dignity are under threat.

“We are seeing a pattern of deaths and the only way to reduce these deaths is to reduce the prison population size,” she said.

“This shows how badly prisons need reforming.”

A Ministry of Justice Spokesperson said: “Public protection is our priority and we will always ensure there are enough prison places for those who are sentenced to custody by the courts.

“We are investing £1.3 billion to replace ageing and ineffective prisons. Our prison reforms are designed to reduce reoffending, cut crime and improve public safety.”

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