The grim conditions in prisons in England and Wales are laid bare today (Thursday 27 January) as official figures reveal that the number of people dying behind bars has reached its highest level since current recording practices began.

A statistical bulletin, published by the Ministry of Justice, shows that 371 people died in prison custody in 2021. This is a 17 per cent rise on the year before, when 318 people died.

It exceeds the previous high of 354 deaths in a calendar year, recorded in 2016, when the prison population stood at about 85,000. Currently, the prison population is significantly lower than it was in 2016 – recorded at 79,303 at the end of last week – which makes the recent rise in fatalities even more concerning.

The number of people losing their lives through suicide has increased by 28 per cent in just one year – from 67 in 2020 to 86 in 2021 – with people on remand or serving sentences of less than six months at particularly high risk. One in five suicides occurred within the person’s first 30 days in custody, with one in 10 cases occurring within the first week.

The figures reveal the devastating impact that Covid-19 has had on people living and working in prisons and their families. From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to the end of December 2021, 177 people in prison have died within 28 days of having a positive Covid-19 test or where there was a clinical assessment that Covid-19 was a factor in their deaths.

The Howard League has called for the treatment of people in prison to be included in the inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. Strict restrictions in prisons have left tens of thousands of people locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, for months on end.

The restrictions’ particularly damaging impact on children and young adults were highlighted in two Howard League briefings, published in 2020.

Andrea Coomber, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “For the first time since current recording practices began more than 40 years ago, people in prison are dying at a rate of more than one per day. 

“While the full impact of the pandemic will only become apparent in the years to come, there is plainly a mental health crisis in our prisons with suicides up nearly 30 per cent in the past year.

“Tens of thousands of people have been held in overcrowded conditions or solitary confinement for months on end. It is almost impossible to fathom the mental distress that this will have caused. This is devastating for the prisoners, their families and the staff looking after them.’ 

The bulletin states that prisons recorded 52,726 incidents of self-injury in the 12 months to the end of September 2021, at a rate of one every 10 minutes. This represents an overall reduction of 11 per cent compared to the previous 12 months, but the rate of self-injury among women rose by 5 per cent.

Over the same period, prisons recorded 20,049 assaults – an 18 per cent reduction on the figures for the previous 12 months.