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.