Following the publication of the annual report of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) this week there has been a commendable level of concern expressed over what Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, has called the “terrible toll” of recent prison suicides (read the full report here). The HMIP findings confirm what the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Nigel Newcomen, has been flagging up in his own recent reports: our prisons are becoming less safe places.
It is clear that the interlinked issues of deteriorating safety, inadequate staffing, a shortage of mental heath care and poor conditions inside our prisons are now on the agenda and the national media – including The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian – is following each development as it happens. While I don’t think that the prison suicide rate, as such, is going to be a significant issue in the forthcoming general election, it does mean that the repeated denials that there is any crisis in our prisons coming from both Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling and the new Prisons Minister Andrew Selous really cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has considered the objective evidence.
However, just highlighting the crisis and its consequences will not be enough. Urgent solutions need to be found.
One of those making such a suggestion is former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken. In case anyone has forgotten, Mr Aitken was convicted of perjury in 1999 and sentenced to an 18-month custodial sentence, of which he served seven months. He later wrote about his time inside in an interesting memoir entitled Porridge and Passion (2006).
Writing in a letter published this week in The Guardian, Mr Aitken makes the following proposal:
One practical suggestion that might ease the problem would be to extend the responsibilities of “listeners” in our jails so that they also become “watchers”. Establishments have a group of inmates, trained by the charity Samaritans, to listen to the anxieties of fellow prisoners who might be potential suicides. These listeners, who often work closely with wing officers, are widely credited with preventing some self-inflicted deaths which might otherwise occur. Prison staff, in my experience as a former listener, work hard to minimise suicides. They hold a list of high-risk self-harmers or worse. Those on it are kept under observation by officers using the peepholes in cell doors.
The cut in prison staff numbers by 10,000 over the past three years may mean that some officers reduce the frequency of their observation of high-risk inmates. So it would be a good idea to utilise the services of the existing listeners to support the efforts of prison officers in keeping watch over potentially suicidal inmates in their cells. A policy of giving such extra responsibilities to trusted prisoners would be in accord with the government’s approach of using offenders in the field of rehabilitation. Such a move would need an amendment to the Prison Service Instructions rulebook, but it would surely be a well-supported initiative to help prevent prison suicides.
|Listeners' prison poster|
At least Mr Aitken does have some practical, first-hand experience of both prison and of the Listeners scheme. This operates in most UK prisons, having been launched back in 1991. According to the Samaritan’s website, there are an estimated 1,200 trained Listeners working across the prison estate at the moment. They provide a 24-hour service to fellow inmates and the aim is to achieve a ratio of around one trained Listener to every 50 or so fellow prisoners.
Although I never worked or trained as a Listener myself – mainly because Insiders (peer mentors) are not supposed to combine such roles in order to maintain a clear demarcation between the giving of practical advice and information by Insiders and the non-directional, listening role of the Listeners team – I have the greatest respect for the invaluable work they do. The scheme can truly offer a life-saving service to people who are in deep distress, some of whom often consider suicide or serious self-harm as their only viable options.
However, Mr Aitken’s well-meaning proposals above are fraught with dangers, not least for those prisoners who have volunteered to train and work as Listeners in our prisons. One of the key issues is accountability. All prisoners are in the custody of HM Prison Service and as the Service’s own mission statement makes clear:
Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Its duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.
That responsibility – and the legal duty of care that goes with it – cannot be delegated to fellow prisoners, no matter how well-trained or well-meaning the prisoner concerned may be. Using inmates as “watchers” – as suggested by Mr Aitken in his letter above – is essentially to re-task Listeners to provide suicide watch cover ‘on the cheap’ because the Prison Service simply lacks sufficient staff to do the job. In fact, the Samaritan’s code of conduct for prisons expressly excludes the use by the Prison Service of Listeners as ‘baby-sitters’ for other prisoners, precisely for that very reason.
|A Listener's cell on a prison wing|
Mr Aitken’s suggestion risks blurring the responsibilities and legal duties of the prison staff, while extending a range of responsibilities of a small group of volunteer prisoners for the lives and safety of their peers. In my opinion, any move in that direction would be potentially dangerous at a variety of levels and simply cannot be right.
What would be the legal implications for any prison that used such “watchers”? How would inquest juries view those prisoners and the role that they had been fulfilling in the place of paid, professional prison officers?
What of the question of legal liability? Could Mr Aitken’s “watchers” even be exposed to potential legal action from deceased prisoners’ distressed families in the event of a suicide? Could they be legally indemnified? No-one knows because, at the moment, serving prisoners are not given such formal roles or responsibilities for the lives of other inmates for very good reasons.
And what of the psychological impact on these prisoners in the case of a suicide or attempted suicide on their ‘watch’? I’ve written in a previous blog post how I and other cons felt acute guilt over the deaths of fellow prisoners that we’ve known. Given the serious shortage of mental heath care and support across the prison estate, what could the Prison Service offer to distressed ‘watchers’ who have been in close proximity to the dead prisoner, perhaps got to know them and then have feelings of guilt over their deaths? In reality, the answer is probably somewhere between very little or nothing.
|Listeners: available 24/7|
And then there could well be a requirement, as there is upon serving prison staff, to attend and give evidence during Coroner’s inquests into deaths in custody. Prisoners who discover cell-mates or other inmates after their deaths are often already made to attend these hearings to give their account of events leading up to the discovery of a body. HM Coroners have the legal power to issue summons to relevant witnesses under common law (Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and Coroners (Inquests) Rules, 2013).
For a prisoner summonsed to appear at an inquest, the whole process can be highly disruptive and demeaning: being repeatedly strip searched, having to be taken in handcuffs in prison transport, sometimes moved between prisons to be closer to where the inquest is taking place, perhaps waiting days or weeks for a transfer back thus cancelling booked family visits. All of this can also disrupt paid prison employment, education courses etc.
Those volunteers would be left high and dry with their own psychological issues and all the resulting stress. No serving prisoner should be expected to take on such a stressful role when they are still in the midst of serving their own sentence in prison. It’s not as if they can go home at the end of the day and unwind with their own loved ones for emotional support. Mr Aitken’s idea, however kindly meant, would be both cruel and inhumane.
The ‘Safer Custody’ strategy at the heart of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 64/2011 – Management of prisoners at risk of harm to self, to others and from others (Safer Custody) – requires that governors take certain mandatory actions to implement the Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork (ACCT) process. This includes the identification of prisoners considered to be at risk of suicide or self-harm and the procedures that are to be used in order to manage, monitor and review the measures required to support these individuals.
The ACCT strategy can be labour intensive, requiring commitment of staff resources – particularly for those severely distressed prisoners who need constant watch 24 hours a day – and the current staff shortages in many establishments must inevitably call into question whether these obligations set out in PSI 64/2011 can be adequately delivered in many of our prisons. The evidence highlighted in the latest reports from HMIP and the PPO would indicate that this system is coming under intense strain and is, in some cases, failing to provide the required monitoring and management of suicidal prisoners or those who are in serious distress and have resorted to self-harming as a coping mechanism or as a cry for help.
However, making use of other prisoners to fill these staffing gaps would be neither legal nor appropriate. What would come next in Mr Grayling’s cut-price prisons being run on the cheap? Giving ‘trusted’ cons a bunch of cell keys so they can unlock the wings? Where does this end? So Mr Aitken, thank you for a well-meaning suggestion, but it is one which must be firmly resisted by the Samaritans, the Prison Officers Association, the Prison Governors Association – and by all prisoners acting as Listeners themselves.