In the News: Prisons fail to act on inmates’ suicide risks, says watchdog

Clues that prisoners may take their own lives are too often missed, a watchdog has warned.

Known factors indicating a heightened risk – such as a history of suicidal behaviour or the circumstances of the inmate’s offence – are sometimes overlooked, the prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) said.

It follows a previous review of self-inflicted deaths of prisoners which found that a significant number occurred in the first month in prison.

The warning comes after the recent deaths in custody of Michelle Barnes and Sarah Reed. Barnes, 33, killed herself in a prison in Durham six days after giving birth to a baby girl and shortly after being taken off suicide watch.

Reed, 32, was found dead in her cell while being held on remand in Holloway prison in January. She had told her family she fought back against a sexual assault while being held in a secure mental health unit, only to find herself facing a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent.

Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen said: “The early days and weeks of custody are often a difficult time for prisoners and a period of particular vulnerability for those at risk of suicide.

“The Prison Service has introduced reception, first night and induction processes to help identify and reduce this risk.

“Some prisoners have obvious factors, such as mental ill-health or a lack of experience of prison, that indicate that they are at heightened risk of suicide, but my investigations too often find that staff have failed to recognise or act on them – with potentially fatal consequences.”

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