29 October 2020

The Ministry of Justice has today (29 October 2020) released the latest statistics on deaths and self-harm in prison. The safety in custody statistics show every five days a person in prison takes their life and across all prisons self-harm has increased for the seventh consecutive year. 

The Ministry of Justice report that in the 12 months to June 2020, there were 61,153 self-harm incidents in prisonsequivalent to 167 incidents per day. Statistics in the children’s estate showed that rate of self-harm was as high as 1,643 incidents per thousand 15 to 17 year olds. 

In the 12 months to September 2020, a total of 282 people died in prison (an 8% decrease from last year), around five deaths every week. This is the fifth consecutive year that the rate of deaths per 1,000 prisoners has been at 3.5 or above. Of these deaths: 

  • 70 deaths were self-inflicted, a decrease from 91 in the previous 12 months. 
  • 174 deaths were classed as ‘natural causes’a 4% increase. INQUEST casework and monitoring shows many of these deaths are in fact premature and far from ‘natural’. 
  • 26 deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 related, all of which took place before July. 
  • 36 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, 27 of which are awaiting classification. 
  • Eight deaths were in women’s prisons. 
  • Two deaths were homicides. 

These figures come only days after HM Inspectorate of Prisons noted in their annual report that the apparent levelling off in self-harm in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis was not properly analysed or explained, and some even tried to argue that longer periods locked in cells did not contribute to levels of self-harm. Chief Inspector Peter Clarke stated that such ‘superficial commentary’ should be treated with ‘extreme caution’this casts doubt on the reliability of today’s figures. 

On March 24, the Secretary of State for Justice placed prisons across England and Wales under immediate lock down. There were widespread calls, including a letter organised by Women in Prison and INQUEST signed by over 100 organisations, to release significant numbers of people prison to protect their mental and physical health. The government’s own End of Custody Temporary Release programme was barely implemented, with fewer than 300 people released.   

Instead, severe regime restrictions were introduced, with 23 hours a day lockdown – effectively prolonged solitary confinement in contravention of international human rights standards – became standard practice. Only this week, the UN Special Rapporteur spoke out against these restrictions.  

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: Today’s figures show the number of deaths remain at historically high levels and self-harm across all prisons has increased for the seventh consecutive year. Yet this only presents a partial picture of what life is like in prison day in and day out. 

The narrative of the Prison Officers Association that prisons are safer under extreme restrictions ignores the harmful impact of indefinite lockdown and the reality that people are dying. Across the prison estate, men, women and children are languishing in conditions amounting to solitary confinement. The detrimental impact to physical and mental health cannot be underestimated.  

Extreme restrictions are being justified as the only way to contain the pandemic in prisons. This is not the case. To reduce ongoing harm we need to dramatically reduce the prison population. This is more important than ever to save lives. Existing resources must be reallocated so that no one is released into destitution or poverty or a lack of health and welfare support." 



For further information, interview requests and to note your interest, please contact [email protected] or call 020 7263 1111 (option 3). 

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

  • HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) annual report 2019-20 is available here. 
  • HMIP report on continued severe COVID-19 visits is available here.