Addressing the mental health crisis in UK prisons: A Call to Action

Alex Zlatinova
February 29, 2024

With an alarming 11 million individuals currently incarcerated worldwide, prioritising the treatment of mental health risks within prison systems is of utmost importance (Fair & Walmsley, 2021).

The risk of suicide in prison is higher than in the general population (Fazel, Ramesh, & Hawton, 2017), and the levels of self-harm and mental health problems are disproportionately high among people in custody (Hawton K., 2014).

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In recent years, the rise in self-harm and suicide rates within prisons in England and Wales has brought to light the urgent need for intervention and reform. Government statistics reveal a harrowing 22% increase in self-inflicted deaths in 2023 (Ministry of Justice), raising concerns about the mental well-being of detainees. The staggering number of incidents of self-harm further emphasizes the severity of the crisis, particularly among vulnerable populations such as women and individuals with deteriorating mental health.

This month the prison population reached 87,538. The latest government projections predict a rise to 94,400 prisoners by March 2025 and a figure of between 93,100 and 106,300 by March 2027.

At a time of unprecedented levels of suicide and self-harm in prisons and after release, regulatory bodies, experts and government are in agreement that prisons must take action to address critical failures and protect the lives of people in prison and the wider criminal justice system.

Many establishments have implemented assessments and diagnostic procedures to address the problem. National guidance has been issued to thousands of prison and probation staff, including specific recommendations for early days in custody guidance documents. The latter is specifically relevant as the MoJ’s data shows that in 2023, 17% of self-inflicted deaths occurred within the first 30 days of custody.

In the face of this crisis, innovative digital solutions are instrumental in the transformation of prison environments and prioritizing the well-being of inmates. In this landscape of adversity, Unilink's unique "Alert, Intervene, Monitor" (AIM) application is one of the solutions that represent this paradigm shift in prison management. AIM harnesses the power of data and technology to assist prison staff in identifying potential vulnerabilities to help mitigate risks of self-harm and suicide among prisoners.

The development of AIM was informed by a comprehensive meta-analysis published in The Lancet (Favril, Yu, Hawton, & Fazel, 2020), consolidating decades of research on prison suicide and self-harm, ensuring its efficacy in addressing the complex challenges faced by individuals in custody.

AIM is designed to analyse a variety of data derived from prisoners’ self-service interactions, identifying deviations from daily routines and highlighting indicators of distress to enable timely intervention by prison staff and governors. The application's configurable dashboards provide valuable data visualization, empowering administrators to monitor population trends and implement targeted intervention strategies.

Moreover, AIM's interoperability and continuous enhancement through iterative development underscore its commitment to adaptability and efficacy. By equipping prison staff with the necessary tools to intervene effectively, AIM creates safer and more supportive environments for all individuals in custody.

However, while technological innovations like AIM offer promising solutions, they must be complemented by broader systemic reforms. The government's own evidence highlights the efficacy of community support programs over incarceration, emphasizing the importance of investing in alternatives to imprisonment for vulnerable populations.

Addressing the mental health crisis in UK prisons requires a multifaceted approach that combines technological innovation with systemic reform. Unilink's AIM application represents a significant stride towards creating safer and more humane prison environments, but sustained efforts are needed to ensure the well-being and dignity of all individuals in custody. As we confront the challenges ahead, let us reaffirm our commitment to justice, compassion, and the fundamental rights of every individual, both within and beyond prison walls.

References

Fair, H., & Walmsley, R. (2021). World Prison Population List (WPPL). London: Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck, University of London.

Favril, L., Yu, R., Hawton, K., & Fazel, S. (2020). Risk factors for self-harm in prison: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Psychiatry.

Fazel, S., Ramesh, T., & Hawton, K. (2017). Suicide in prisons: an international study of prevalence and contributory factors. Lancet Psychiatry.

Hawton K., L. L. (2014). Self-harm in prisons in England and Wales: an epidemiological study of prevalence, risk factors, clustering, and subsequent suicide. Lancet.

Nottingham Trent University, (2020). Preventing the Risk of Suicide and Self-harm Behaviour in Prison Populations

Ministry of Justice (2024). Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to December 2023 Assaults and Self-harm to September 2023

Join us for Modernising Criminal Justice 2024 on the 6th of June at the QEII Conference Centre in London. The event brings together the complete justice system, from arrest through to release.

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