Opinion: A life discarded


Mr K. had arrived on the wing at Brixton Prison on the Friday. By Monday morning he was dead. He had managed to hang himself using a sheet tied around the window bars. No-one knew what time he had died. It would be interesting to know whether the inquest showed up the notoriously lax attitude of Brixton night duty staff to night time cell checks.

No-one really remembered speaking to him and all anyone amongst the prisoners could really say was that he had arrived on Friday, was short and slight, had an Irish accent and kept himself to himself. He had stayed in his cell – one of the few on the wing for single occupancy – except for when he collected his food.

No doubt he had been asked the standard question on his arrival at Brixton. At reception he would have been asked by an officer, “Are you thinking of harming yourself?” Presumably he had replied “No”. A box on the receiving documentation would have been ticked and Mr K. would have been handed over to Healthcare. During the interview with the receiving nurse he would have been asked the same question and he presumably gave the same reply. An entry will have been made on the computer and Mr K. would have been on the way to the wing.

There is no psychological analysis. There would have been no interview scheduled with a trained clinical psychologist. Most members of the prison psychological services are trainee forensic psychologists whose primary role is to identify risks of re-offending and run offender training programmes. Whilst they do have a role in “assessing risk of suicide, self-harm or other high risk behaviour” – according to the job description – they are not available for receiving new prisoners.

They are also only available from 9 a.m to 5 p.m.. At night the role of dealing with prisoners in crisis is devolved to “Listeners” – prisoners who have been trained by the Samaritans.

Ministry of Justice figures released in January showed that there had been 82 suicides in prisons in England and Wales on 2014 – including Mr K. – a rise of 5% on the previous year and the highest level for seven years. Fourteen were between the ages of 18 and 24.

The Grayling cuts have put an ever greater strain on the prison service – on both officers and prisoners. Hours when cells are opened have been restricted by lack of staff. Prison overcrowding is increasing. Opportunities for effective training and rehabilitation are decreasing. The Psychological Services have no role in prison reception. It is a toxic mix.

Liberal Democrats have long said that prison is not the best place for many who are in there. Many have psychological problems. It is time to press for better analysis of risk to prisoners and for trained psychologists to be available to divert offenders to better alternatives to prison and to analyse risk and provide treatment in prison.

* Richard Edwards is a pseudonym for a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous