In Brief

Prison suicides at record levels in England and Wales

Ministry of Justice report shows rise in number of prisoners killing themselves, with assaults and self-harm also up

New figures released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reveal 119 people killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales in 2016, an increase of 29 on the previous year.

It was the highest number since records began in 1978, said the MoJ, which also reported a record 37,784 incidents of self-harm and 25,049 of assault.Justice Secretary Liz Truss said the numbers were "very worrying", adding: "Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have been clear that the violence, self-harm and deaths in our prisons are too high.

"I have taken immediate action to stabilise the estate by tackling the drugs, drones and phones that undermine security. We are also investing £100m annually to boost the frontline by 2,500 officers."

The official statistics on "safety in custody" show an epidemic of violence has swept prisons in the 12 months to September, says The Guardian, with a 40 per cent rise in assaults on staff and a 28 per cent increase in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults

The Independent says the figures underline the scale of the task facing the government as it attempts to address the prison crisis.

Setting out the figures, the MoJ report said: "The rise in assaults since 2012 has coincided with major changes to the regime, operating arrangements and culture in public sector prisons

"For example, restructuring of the prison estate including staff reductions, which have reduced overall running costs, and an increasing awareness of gang culture and illicit psychoactive drugs in prisons.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, called on the government to develop a long-term plan to downsize prisons across England and Wales, with the aim of at least halving the number of people locked up over the next 20 years.

"This is a predictable consequence of tough but dumb crime policies pursued by this government, and by the previous coalition and Labour governments," he said.

"While ministers express concern and promise action, they are failing to address the real problem: the unnecessary imprisonment of thousands of our fellow citizens every year, often in disgraceful and distressing conditions."

His comments were echoed by Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, which works with the families of people who die in custody.

She said: "This unacceptable death toll reflects the grim reality of overcrowded and dehumanising prisons and the failure to protect those in their care... This broken system cannot deal with societal problems of mental and physical ill health, addictions, poverty and housing."

Coles called for a radical reduction in the prison population, investment in alternatives and a change in the nature and culture of prison to make them places of rehabilitation.

"If the government fails to act, the scandalous death toll will continue," she warned.

Last month, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, former justice secretary Ken Clarke and former home secretary Jacqui Smith also called for the government to halve the prison population.

A failure to do so, they argued, would prolong the prisons crisis and "do untold damage to wider society".

The MoJ says the prison population in England and Wales has remained relatively stable for the past five years, standing at 85,048 last Friday. However, it doubled from 42,000 to 84,000 between 1990 and 2012.

Last year thousands of staff walked out in protest over health and safety concerns, amid claims that the system was "in meltdown", while a number of serious disturbances erupted in jails.

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