The writing on the wall

Submitted by Anon on 18 June, 2003 - 1:00

Prisoners committing suicide and pensioners left to freeze.

Locked up and forgotten

In August this year 14 male prisoners — a record number — committed suicide. There were no words of horror or regret from David Blunkett. But then rising numbers of prison suicides are not news to the Home Office. It is a trend that has been going on for 10 years — the inevitable result of New Labour’s policy, following on from the Tories, to lock more people up for longer.

Whatever their crimes — and, of course, violent crimes are repellent — very many prisoners are very vulnerable people. Many are mentally ill, for instance. The rate of severe mental illness for male prisoners is 10 times more than that of the general population. Two-fifths of male prisoners suffer from depression or anxiety. The Chief Inspector of Prisons estimated that 41% of all prisoners should be in secure NHS care.

Then there are the young people, some of them children, the drug users and the women who have been separated from their children.

The only surprise is that many more prisoners do not commit suicide. The shocking fact is that this may only be because prisoners often stop short of suicide and, instead, “choose” to self-harm.

These are the shocking statistics:
- The prison population hit an all time high on 2 April 2004 when it reached 75,411; of whom 4,652 were women and 11,095 were under 21. The prison population has increased by 55%, and in the case of women 138% in the last 10 years.
- About 76% of people sentenced to immediate custody in 2002 had committed non-violent offences.
- The number of children locked up under 18 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. In September 2002 there were 3,133.
- During 2003 94 people killed themselves in prison.
- Between January and June 2003, the Prison Service recorded 7,692 incidents of self-harm. 16% of women, 8% male young offenders and 5% of male juveniles self-harmed during this period
- Remand prisoners are particularly vulnerable. Around a third of all prison suicides are by people on remand.
- For women on remand, more than 40 per cent have attempted suicide before entering prison.
- On average 72 remand prisoners self-harm each month: scratching, biting, banging against a wall, up to self-strangulation and cutting arteries.
- 16% of males and 22% of females remanded to prison in 2002 were subsequently given a non-custodial sentence.

Why are so many children being locked up? A quarter of all 15-to-16-year-olds remanded in prison are accused of property offences. And children as young as 12 can now be remanded in custody for persistent petty crimes — in secure local authority accommodation. Young children, 15-year-olds, can still end up in adult prisons.

Many of these children obviously need help: 75% of those held in young offenders’ institutions have not attended school beyond the age of 13. But there’s no help in Blunkett’s Britain.

Blunkett does care about the rising prison population but not because he wants a more humane system: “Prison is an expensive way of denying people liberty”, he says. Cheaper forms of punishment include community based sentences — letting non-dangerous offenders out of jail three months early under the “home detention curfew”, and other measures.

And in the interest of saving money, the Government also wants to bring in unqualified people to staff the suicide watch.

There are no lack of therapeutic ideas and people who can help prisoners. But to the government and to the society it presides over, a prisoner’s life is very cheap. Out of sight, out of mind.

Left to freeze

But no cheaper than the life of a poor elderly person. Last winter 18,000 people died from cold-related illnesses — figure far higher than countries such as Finland, with much colder weather. With a cold winter expected this year the death-toll could be even higher.

700,000 pensioners live without central heating in England. In Scotland all pensioners’ home are fitted with central heating regardless of their income. The result? Fewer people die.

The cost of fitting central heating to all homes in England and Wales would be ÂŁ2 billion. According to National Energy Action a small payback from the energy companies could finance that project.

The government does have a scheme to install central heating and get extra fuel payments but these are all part of a means tested benefit system, something that very many pensioners have been consistently reluctant to participate in.

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