Self-harm in prisons on the increase

Self-harm in prison has risen astronomically since 2003. In 2003 there were 16,393 cases of self-harm in England and Wales but the number has risen to 22,459, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform. And yet the Ministry of Justice argue that because a more accurate system of reporting levels of self-harm has been introduced that means more effective and robust reporting of self-harm incidents.

But the rather pathetic response from the ministry doesn’t not explain or even understand why, even with more effective reporting systems, self-harm is increasing dramatically. Self-harm by women prisoners has increased by 48% in recorded incidents between 2003 and 2007.

The question is, are we surprised that self-harm is on the increase? The prison services states that prison staff are trained to assist prisoners who are at risk of suicide or self-harm. Staff may help to keep someone safe by making sure they have company when needed. There’s the ACCT Plan (replaced the old F2052SH) that identifies prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm. But rather like the role of prison, it’s not working. The old F2052SH system never worked properly so have the authorities learned from this?

There are parallels with the prison system and the special hospital regime. When I visited women in Special Hospitals (Broadmoor, Rampton and Ashworth) during the 1990s. Nearly every single woman I encounted self-harmed. For many of these women, self-harming was about feeling powerless, control issues, self-loathing and isolation. There are more explanations but these were the common reasons they gave.

One woman I used to visit would self-harm after every visit to her therapist. Instead of recognising and identifying this and trying to find ways of supporting her in reducing her need to self-harm, the staff would turn her cell upside down looking for “sharp implements” and place her in solitary confinement as “punishment”.

I complained, arguing that this was utterly barbaric and would increase her sense of powerlessness therefore she would self-harm more. Why couldn’t the staff intervene every time she came back from her therapist by talking to her rather than leaving her alone in her cell where feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness were festering?

Instead of understanding by showing some humility these women I met at the Specials’ were punished. Another woman lost the ability to use her right hand after she severed tendons yet the staff responded by taking ages in calling ambulance (some admitted that this was another way of “punishing” the woman for self-harming).

Confining vulnerable people in over crowded prisons only exacerbates distress and increased desperation will in all probability lead to self-harm. Self-harm and suicide are usually lumped together. Self-harm is more of a coping mechanism, how to get through the day yet there are times when self-harm and suicide overlap and the distinctions blurred.

The attitudes towards self-harming has always been retrograde and oppressive in the Specials’ and similar to the prison system . Staff were often dismissive of the reasons women self-harmed often blaming the woman for “attention seeking”. Never trying to understand the desperation and pain.This just exposes the complacency by the state and institutionalised attitudes towards women that are entrenched within the prison system and state custody overall.

There lacks a humane, insightful and compassionate criminal justice system.  Prisons are used as social dustbins for vulnerable people that will only increase desperation and powerlessness. And self-harming behaviour will only increase.

23 comments on “Self-harm in prisons on the increase

  1. Oh these women can’t help following these fashions! Ed you level of sophistication beggars belief.

  2. Call it what you want, copy cat crime, etc. The fact is, when these things catch on like wild fire it’s very difficult for the authorities to stop it.

  3. Thanks for posting on this Louise, I saw a report of it in the Morning star today, and was hoping that you had noticed the story.

    The word that stuck in my mind was that the idea of people being “warehoused”, it seems that there is a very clear relationship between self-harm and overcrowding, as the prison populatioon increases and people lose provacy and dignity, then their self-worth deteriorates.

    I think personally, i am a little less critical of the prison staff than you are, because they are making the best of a bad situation they are in, and I think their union has made real progress in recent years in shifting the internal culture of prison staff.

    The real trouble is that there is so little compassion in society generaly for the vulnerable people who end up in prison.

  4. Staff were often dismissive of the reasons women self-harmed often blaming the woman for “attention seeking”.

    I would have thought this was a pretty massive clue as to the ability of these prison staffers to do their job.

    They’re the equivalent of shelf-stackers in these human warehouses. Once upon a time at least the pretence of an effort would be made to understand vulnerable women in this position. We’ve used the term before at SU, but they are one set of canaries down the mine telling us something is deeply wrong and getting wronger all the time.

  5. Prison officers are not a homogenous group but in saying that there are so many rigid institutionalised negative attitudes about prisoners’ held by the prison officers.
    One woman told a prison officer she was going to kill herself. The prison officer’s response, “do it quietly”… She was found hanging a few hours later.

    Words fail me. This exposes the level of inhumanity that exists within the prison system. Something has to be done and I am not talking building more “titans”…

  6. One woman told a prison officer she was going to kill herself. The prison officer’s response, “do it quietly”… She was found hanging a few hours later.

    Sounds like an urban myth to me. How did the woman report this if she killed herself? Please.

    Lousie, where would you keep criminals in your vision of Britain and how would you stop them harming themselves?

  7. mark anthony france on said:

    #7 Ed D. Look I am absolutely knackered… I have just finished driving 300 miles just to have the dubious privaledge after 7 years of struggle to be treated repectfully by the “teachers” of my boy child… who has experienced loss, bereavement, brutality, poverty and naked violence and aggression at the hands of the very people he had previously been dependant on for love…He at the tender age of 12 is already treated and constrained by an ‘inclusion’ regime which is a nightmare scenario… when he has a quite moment with me and he feels safe he expresses the same frustrations as Yossarian in Catch 22 or that chappie in Kafka’s the Trial…. He is 12!…In his local area in the past five years 3 women and 2 men have met brutal, horrific deaths in domestic violence related incidents…These were the mothers and fathers of his peers, in his local area people in their droves are retreating or resorting to one form of evalgelical or jihadist religious nirvana or another in the desprate attempt to keep their souls from dying under the onslaught of an atomising reality… If they are not seeking solace in mysticism then they achieve similar results through substance misuse or occasionally vacilate between the two…. In this environment there is no civil society or politics … just a chaotic and shifting temproray system of alliances that are linked to forms of ‘primitive acculmilation of capital’.
    In some circles and in some eyes when he wanders the streets with his hoodie up reciting his mc prayers [which are a stylised account of what he has seen] he is viewed as a ‘criminal’. At school… whatever open heartend natural intelligence he shows or compassion for the underdog in playground disputes he champions goes unnoticed by a system of new labour new speak where every child matters usually turns into everyday common allgarden judgement and moral condemnation…
    Urban myths… You raise a pertinent point… However, I can not even begin to explain to you the depths of pain, torture, and degredation that I personaly experienced in the first few years of the new millenium in the UK. In the very belly of the imperialist beast in 2003 as the bombs dropped on Bagdad millions in the UK were more concerned and focused on the ‘personal’ and private traumas they experienced in the privacy of their own homes…this pain produces an introversion and a separtion from anything that can meaningfully be called political engagement.
    All I can say is that it is perfectly clear that the vast majority of all of those in jail, male or female, in the UK in some way or another are victims and products of and exploitative, consummerist economic system…. It is not utopianist to envisage a human future where Jails do not exsist… My son is well on the way towards labeling, exculsion, educational underachivement,economic failiure if he seeks solace in the framework of a local gang or in the arms of a female spunk bandit who mistakenly gets pregnant in the hope of gaining status, meaning, hope for the future and social housing and benefits. If my son get angry, confused and in his gut filled with despair or a desire for vengence…. If my son does something profoundly stupid… and ends up in Jail.
    I will visit him
    I will pray that he finds a peer he can relate too.
    I will pray that prison staff will treat him with dignity.
    I will pray that no one, guard or inmate or himself will harm him.
    I will pray.
    until the day he is free.

    Ed D. to answer your question to Louise ‘where would you keep criminals in your vision of Britain and how would you stop them harming themselves’ i would say…
    WE SHOULD KEEP THEM IN THE COMMUNITY AND APPLY RESORATIVE JUSTICE, REHABILITATE, RE-EDUCATE AND REINFORCE THE POSSIBILITY OF THEM FINDING THE LOVE THEY SEEK. SHOW them the SENDERO LUMINOSO [the shining path] In genaral people stop harming themselves when either they find someone more vulnerable than themselves to harm instead or when they find love.
    Clearly, this scenario is not something that we can envisage applying immediately at the level of the way the ‘state’ functions… however, this is a goal, and a goal that everyone of us can attempt to apply in relation to every human who transgresses or committs criminal acts against us.
    As Che Guevara once said ‘at the risk of seeming ridiculous… a true revolutionary is guided by a profound feeling of love,’
    All is fair in love and war.

    peace, justice, equality
    mark anthony france

  8. Have you ever thought that your style of parenting may to blame, and not the system?

    For people who live in genuine police states – like Iraq under Saddam – this type of rant is deeply offensive and hysterical.

    You’ve got to stop pretending it’s the police’s fault, or the government, or some other body, and start to take responsibility. Kids have it far easier today than they did years ago.

  9. Oliver on said:

    Is it just prison or society as a whole? How much has self harming inmcreased over all – including before getting to prison or when in rehab?
    Apart from prison over-crowding levels of bullying (available in all social conditions outside prison), how much has suicide increased among teenagers in general?

  10. Ed D is a funny chap, a troll who likes to wind up the left, but also a sincere supporter of New Labour. Here he shows the hard hearted cruelty and contempt for working people that typifies New Labour.

    The government is indeed resonsible for the epidemic of unhappiness that is gripping our young people, through allowing the commercialistion of childhood, unregulated advertising of junk food, reducing sports facilities, and subjecting our kids to regimes of continual counter-productive testing in schools; the bullying alienated atmosphere in our schools causes lakes of unhappiness and desperation among young people; the league tables that tell working class children their schools are crap and strip out any sense of community pride they have in their school. And generally our children are affected by the fact that New Labour has colludied in creating a society with no values, no sense of purpose, and a pointless worship of consumerism and shallow celebrity.

    Parents work long hours, are stressed and worried about personall debt, and there is a huge housing crisis, all of which factors increase the unhappiness and insecurity of children.

    But hey, it doesn’t matter to New labour as long as the children keep paying their money over the counter to MacDionalds and the profits keep growing.

  11. Oliver: I think prison reflects our society, an individualist driven cold uncaring society. Self-harming has always been an issue but a hidden one at that. The negative assumptions inherent around self-harming has begun to shift…slowly…esp. in the mainstream psychiatric system that was due to the campaigning by the mental health use movement.

    But the prison system, rather like the Specials’ still have these negative institutionalised fixed views on self-harm and also suicide.

    Many of these women who self-harm in prison and sometimes end up dead, self-harmed before they went into prison and in many cases this was reported yet in many cases ignored by the prison staff.
    I am not sure about the overall stats but there seems to be an increase in suicides among teenagers.

    Mark: We need a more compassionate society that condemns a lot less and understands a lot more…..

  12. Andy you have a very bleat view. Advertising of junk food is now regulated and not allowed to be shown during kids TV, but even if wasn’t it would hardly make kids unhappy. On the contrary, kids love junk food. Sporting facilities have, by in large, been kept by this government to their credit. Kids love testing at school because they don’t have to do any homework for it. Yes, bullying is a problem, as if always has been, but that’s no the government’s fault. I don’t think all working class parents pay that much attention to league tables, but nevertheless crappy inner city schools is precisely why the government launched the academy programmes.

    You can overegg all of these things. People lived in poverty that would be unimaginable in the early part of the last century. To blame every that’s wrong with your life on the government if the day is just an easy cop out.

  13. “Advertising of junk food is now regulated and not allowed to be shown during kids TV”

    You should try taking small children round sainsburys and see what food packaging appealls to them.

  14. Pete Brown on said:

    EdD probably has a big smile on his face because we have all taken the bait. As other comments have said EdD doesn’t understand the word compassion and his comments on ‘urban myth’ are beyongd the pale. But we actually need his stupid comments (sometimes!)as a reminder of what we are up against.
    Louise, you and I have been on the same wave length over this for some time now, it’s good to be joined by others such as Mark France who, like you is spot on with his analysis and conclusions.
    I have some personal feelings about this that I am now able to share after two years of nightmares. When my wife was killed in front of me, not by a bomb or a bullet in Baghdad, but a driver who apparently can’t tell a red light from a green one I went through a period of self doubt and self blame where I could not go out onto my balcony (six floors up) becasue I was frightened of what I might do and if the ‘self harm’ was not physical I beat myself up mentally more times than I would care to count. Fortunately I was able to get out of my ‘prison’ for a few hours each day and I could phone my daughters and friends regularly.
    As Mark said keep these ‘prisoners’ in the community, with restorative justice, rehabilitation, re-education and help to build a new life – in a word compassion.
    Perhaps we should tattoo the word on ‘compassion’ on Jack Straw’s forehead so he see’s it every time he looks in a mirror.

  15. Pete: Absolutely right. Compassion is missing from the lexicon of Ed D. And for people like him they think it must be really difficult to get caught up in the system. Well, it isn’t.

    I met so many women who in the Specials’ and the prison system (and I had much in common with these women) and all I kept thinking (and I am an atheist) “there but for the grace of god go I”…..

  16. Lousie, it’s a different sort of compassion. You care mainly about criminals. I mainly care about the victims of criminals. It’s just a different approach.

  17. Pete Brown on said:

    No EdD thre isn’t a different sort of compassion – is compassion – as Louise and I have stated before we, and many others who have commented, other than you, care about the victims as much as the criminal. Why do you think we support Pauline Campbell she is a victim as well and finds her strength through fighting back.

    our concerns are about a criminal justice system that quietly ignores the self mutilation and suicides of people who most probably were not totally in control when they committed their crime. We want them treated humanely and given a chance to restore their lives and perhaps prevent a re-occurance of a past crime. I, and I think I know that Louise will back me, want a system that does as much to compensate the victims and help them rebuild their lives. In my own case I only help I received as a victim was 32 quid a week for a year and fuck all else apart from friends and family but I can still find compassion for the self harming criminal.

  18. Interesting post

    Self Harm is a complex area and can be understood in a variety of way.

    My experience working in this area for nearly 30 years is that self harm is more prevalent than in the past.

    A recent report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists showed that the kinds of attitudes Louise describes in prison staff are also widespread in NHS Hospitals and A/E Departments.

    For example the report describes instances of People turning up after cutting wrists being stitched up without local anesthetic and people being stomach pumped to teach them a lesson etc.These specific treatments and the poor attitude of staff are longstanding complaints of people who have self harmed and use A/E or general hospital wards.

    Staff need time, education, support and training to deal with these very difficult issues and the time, support and training is not available or not accessible enough.

    Prison officers jobs are increasingly under threat, staffing levels are appalling and they have little Mental Health training. A busy A/E deals with 100,000 patients a year think about what this does to the staff.

    Having said that many staff are caring compassionate and much more awarenesses about self harm now exists
    I think the prison system lags even behind Mental Health and A/E

    Self Harming is a very difficult and challenging phenomena and many staff are unable to cope with there own feelings and experience of it and they end up taking it out on the person who has self harmed.

    We do know that self harm is a coping mechanism used by many many men and women and often points to underlying trauma or abuse.

    We know that over half the people in prison and proportionately more women prisoners have a mental health problems some of which are very serious indeed.

    Many women in prison have been subject to sexual, physical and psychological trauma.

    We know that prisons are bad for peoples Mental Health
    Look at the damage done to people who
    spend long periods in prison consider also innocent people who are wrongfully imprisoned and then get out, the Birmingham 6 etc. Both groups have mental health problems as a result of confinement and find re-adjusting to normal life extremely difficult

    We know that prison does not work and that most people on prison are not serious criminals they are working class, poor, mentally ill, the ill educated, the immigrants and disproportionately black/Asian.

    Prison are increasingly, used as the old Mental asylums were used, to confine poor people who are mentally ill, cheaply.

    Many women busily self harming in prison are there for debt and drugs offenses.Non payment of TV lisences for goodness sake.

    As for the Labour Party they have continued Thatchers policy of using the prisons as cheap mental hospitals
    Loading them with working class people
    most of whom need help and support not confinement in Doncatraz to pay some shareholder dividends.

    The Labour Party ought to hang its head in shame at the amount of violence and trauma they have directed at some of the most inadequate and vulnerable through their penal policies.

    Remember David Blunkett the Labour Home Secretary shouting down the phone, according to the then Director of Prisons, to machine gun demonstrating prisoners?

    But the use of violence against the working class by Labour is normal. I just cannot understand how people on this list can still give Labour any credence.

    You might also want to think about what constitutes self harm, knowingly drinking yourself insensible 5 nights a week for example?

    As for Ed D she/he encapsulates how far the Labour Party has sunk, out of the gutter into the sewer. Lacking any compassion or intelligence and reduced to Powellite ranting, privatisation and punishment.
    What I suggest is that you talk to some people who self harm and try and educate yourself Ed D, before its too late. You know how things have a tendency to come around.

    On a more positive note Mental Health Service Users are now beginning to band together and organise.They are producing training courses, books and information for those who work with people who self harm. This training often shifts attitudes and brings compassion into the system in a single session.

    Some prisons are training prisoners with the help of the Samaritans
    to befriend prisoners who are distressed.

    In a more humane, more socialist system we would empty the prisons, provide more mental health services and educate all our kids properly.

  19. I agree with you Pete.

    Ed D, if you are so concerned with the victims of crime then how do you explain the cut in the criminal injuries compensation scheme……

    ANiN: Regards to the mental health user movement, there has been much work done regards to self-harm and I was involved in putting together good practice guides and bks/articles dispelling myths around self-harm and involved in training professionals about self-harm.

    The point is I have experienced (both personally and in other ways)the unenlightened, unpleasant and downright hostile attitudes of professionals and that’s why it is vital to have people who self-harm part of the process in changing attitudes of professionals (aren’t they best placed to know what is needed etc etc) and the system overall rather than some diagnostic manual full of labels to further medicalise people and their experiences of life.

  20. Louise

    yes I agree

    There is a great need for democratisation of Mental Health and other services giving the service users and staff some real ability to access, use and direct resources.

    We also need to get these issues out of the ghetto to which they are all too easily consigned.

    The Labour Party however are busy setting up a private prison service and privatising NHS services.
    Labour has never democratised services and service users, carers etc have had to fight to get any sort of voice
    Labour are currently busy taking out any sort of authentic oversight and scrutiny.

    If we were clever we would campaign in partnership with the users, prisoners, people who self harm, carers etc to recast the system.

    These are important issues for socialists all too often overlooked.

  21. ANiN: “We also need to get these issues out of the ghetto to which they are all too easily consigned”.

    Indeed. There are so many hidden injustices and distress in this society. Many times people feel so isolated,and alienated to feel confident and able enough to talk to anyone and also at the same time it exposes the lack of understanding and empathy from the system.

    I know in practical terms that sometimes if someone has self-harmed and has caused serious damage they may find visiting A&E utterly difficult and impossible esp. if before they have been treated in a hostile way and told they are an “attention seeker” and a “time waster”.

    With that kind of treatment why would anyone want to open up about self-harm if all they get is hostility and criticism? People already feel worthless and powerless and this just reinforces the crap feelings.

    Again, these issues shouldn’t be overlooked and have been hidden for too long where people have suffered in silence.