Sunday 23 July 2017

Free phone calls and other changes urged after rise in self-harm and suicides in prisons

By Kameron Virk

“When the state takes someone into custody, we have a duty to keep them safe”.

Young offenders and mentally ill inmates should be allowed to make free phone calls as part of efforts to address a rise in self-harm and suicides in jails, a parliamentary committee said.

MPs and peers also called for measures on overcrowding, how long prisoners can be kept in their cell, and staffing levels, to be set down in law.

Why are there calls for changes?

Figures published last week showed that in the year to March there were 113 apparent self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales. The figure has risen sharply in recent years, along with jumps in incidents of self-harm.

In an interim report the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said evidence it received suggests that young people and prisoners with mental health conditions which place them at risk of suicide are often unable to contact their families.

The committee said a provision should be made in prison rules to allow these inmates to make free phone calls to a designated family member or friend.

How are calls made currently?

All prisoners have a personal account to which they can add money to make calls on phones provided by the jail. They can pay for calls using either earnings from work at the prison or money sent in by family.

Generally, £1 credit will equate to a 10-minute call to a landline, or a five-minute call to a mobile, according to a report from the prisons watchdog published last year.

Figures from HM Inspectorate of Prisons show that in 2015/16, a quarter (26%) of prisoners surveyed reported that they had problems getting access to phones.

What else did the committee call for?

A legal duty to be placed on the secretary of state to specify and maintain a minimum ratio of officers to prisoners in each establishment, a prescribed legal maximum time that a prisoner can be kept in their cell, and mechanisms to ensure the secretary of state’s accountability to Parliament for overcrowding and maintaining specified levels of staffing.

Labour MP Harriet Harman, chairman of the committee, said: “The introduction of legislation would do something that should have been done a long time ago, but that is now urgent, which is to end the death toll of people with mental health conditions who take their own lives in our prisons.

“When the state takes someone into custody, we have a duty to keep them safe – their life becomes our responsibility – yet prisons are not a place of safety.”

She added: “Every single one of these deaths is an absolute tragedy for each individual and their family.

“Successive governments have welcomed reports and proposals on this issue. They have changed policy and issued new guidelines, but nothing changes, except the death toll, which rises.”

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