The number of suicides in jails in England and Wales increased by a “troubling” 64% last year, the prisons complaints watchdog has said.
As he published his annual report, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen said the increase reflected the level of mental-ill health in prisons and “a rising toll of despair” among some prisoners.
Mr Newcomen said it suggested the need for the Prison Service to review its suicide and self-harm procedures.
Some 90 inmates took their own lives in the year 2013/14, up from 55 the previous year.
Commenting on suicides, Mr Newcomen said: “It has been suggested that prison staff are now so stretched, and the degree of need among some prisoners so high, that they may no longer be able to provide adequate care and support for some vulnerable prisoners.
“The evidence for this remains anecdotal and every day prison staff do save many prisoners from themselves – an achievement which goes largely unreported and without which the tragic number of suicides would be even higher.
“Nevertheless, the prison system is undeniably facing enormous challenges.
“It is nearly a decade since the Prison Service introduced its current suicide and self-harm procedures and, given the examples of poor implementation described in this annual report and the worrying increase in suicides, I believe it is time to review and refresh these arrangements.”
Mr Newcomen started 239 investigations into deaths in prison,immigration detention and probation service approved premises, 25% more than the previous year.
Of these, 130 deaths were from natural causes, up 7%, nine were classified as ‘other non-natural’ and a small number – six – await a cause of death.
And there were four homicides, twice as many as the year before.
In July, figures released by the Ministry of Justice painted a bleak picture of English and Welsh prisons with high levels of deaths in custody and a rise in the number of jails considered to be ”of concern”.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “If the tragic and rapid rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody does not wake ministers up to the damage drastic cuts and rushed policy decisions are doing to the prison service and the people in its care, it is hard to know what will.
“It’s time to reserve prison for the most serious and violent offenders and to ensure that, wherever possible, people who are mentally ill are diverted into the care and treatment they so urgently need.”
Prisons minister Andrew Selous said: “Reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody is a key priority and we are working hard to understand the reasons for the recent rise – but there is no simple explanation.
“We have a high proportion of people with mental health issues in the prison population and, as the case in society, the reasons behind any suicide are complex and individual.
“Young adults are a particularly challenging and vulnerable group, and that is why we have commissioned an independent review into the deaths of 18-24 year-olds in prison custody. “Every death is also investigated by the police and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and a Coroner’s inquest, with strenuous efforts made to learn lessons.”