29 April 2021

The Ministry of Justice has today (29 April 2021) released the latest statistics on deaths and self-harm in prison in England and Wales. These showed a record high of 154 deaths in prison in the past quarter, and a 42% increase in deaths in the past 12 months.

In the 12 months to March 2021 there were a total of 408 deaths of people in prison; more than one death in prison every day and a 42% increase from the past 12 months. Of these deaths: 

  • 283 deaths were classed as ‘natural causes’, though INQUEST casework and monitoring shows many are premature and far from ‘natural’. This is a 65% increase from the previous 12 months.
  • Around two out of every five ‘natural cause’ deaths in the period related to Covid-19 (see below).
  • 79 deaths were self-inflicted, the same rate per 1,000 people as the previous 12 months.
  • 45 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, 33 of which await classification.
  • Nine of deaths took place in women’s prisons, 7 of which were ‘natural cause’ and 2 were self-inflicted. 
  • There was also 1 homicide.

From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to the end of March 2021, 143 prisoners have died within 28 days of having a positive COVID-19 test or where there was a clinical assessment that COVID-19 was a contributory factor. Of these 143 deaths, 116 are suspected to be due to COVID-19.

Most recently, in the three months to March 2021 the number of deaths increased to a record high of 154. In this quarter, 47% of all deaths were of prisoners who had died within 28 days of a positive test for COVID-19. There was also an increase in self-inflicted deaths, with 26 self-inflicted deaths in the period, 12 more than in the same quarter of 2020.

As well as deaths, self-harm remains an issue, particularly in women’s prisons. In the 12 months to December 2020, the rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners increased by 13% in female establishments. This has continued to increase further in the most recent quarter. However, self-harm rates decreased by 13% in male establishments. Overall there were 55,542 self-harm incidents across both estates in the 12 months to December 2020.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: The government made a choice not to undertake largescale early releases and radically reduce the prison population, long before the second wave of Covid-19 took effect. These latest bleak figures showing record numbers of deaths in prison are a damning indictment of that decision.

These statistics also represent the serious consequences of highly restrictive regimes on mental as well as physical health. Not least in women’s prisons, where the level of self-harm continues to soar, at a time when the Government continues with deplorable plans to build 500 more prison places for women.

In the short-term urgent action is needed to ensure people in prison have access to healthcare and vaccinations and restrictions are eased as soon as possible. In the long term, we need a dramatic reduction of the prison population and more investment in radical community alternatives.”   



For further information contact [email protected] or 020 7263 1111 (option 3). 

The Safety in Custody statistics are available here.

For more information and summaries of the circumstances of deaths of people in prison, see our report Deaths in prison: A national scandal (January 2021) 

See also: INQUEST data on deaths in prison custody, 2010-2020. 

Please refer to the Samaritans Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self-harm.