My erstwhile PhD student Dr Amy Ludlow organized a wonderfully stimulating discussion day on this subject last week. It was well attended by perhaps 100 people from prisons, probation, coroners, academia, and the Ministry of Justice. Professor Alison Liebling kicked off with a brilliant review of the research in this area area – much of it carried out by her and her colleagues in the Prisons Research Centre of the Institute of Criminology over the last thirty years. Her message that if you reduce distress in prison you reduce not only suicide but also reduce re-offending is a powerful one.

I spoke on the report on Deaths under Probation Supervision, of which I was a co-author four years ago. Loraine Gelsthorpe, Jake Phillips and I undertook an analysis of data for the Howard League  which they had obtained under Freedom of Information requests on the number of adults who had died under probation supervision – including deaths following release from custody and on probation licence over the period from 2005-2010. This data had not previously been published. We subsequently obtained further data, following another FOI request. Despite the fact that the quality of the data was (astonishingly?) poor, we counted 2,275 deaths of men and 275 deaths of women under probation supervision between 2005 and 2011. Suicide accounted for not less than 13 % in each year. Other important causes were alcohol issues (8% in each year for which there are figures), unlawful killing (5% in each year), and misadventure/accident (not less than 8%). Also, a large number were classified as ‘unknown’ cause (not less than 15%). The suicide rate in prison in shocking – but the deaths of those under supervision in the community is much higher, and apparently largely ignored.

We noted then what seemed like defensiveness on the part of probation staff in terms of what and what is not recorded on the forms, and a focus on staff management issues (support for staff). There was much ambivalence and ambiguity when it came to what might have been done differently; e.g. it was not clear how far probation staff were equipped to support families, nor indeed, how far they were prepared to do this within the context of other duties and constraints. We asked, at that time, some challenging questions:

  • Was there an ethics of care? Was prevention a priority?
  • What factors connected deaths: e.g. are they related to length of prison sentence or licence conditions?
  • Which other agencies beyond Probation Service were involved at the time of death?
  • Were different agencies aware of the vulnerabilities of this group of people?
  • Did the prison authorities inform the local Probation Service where people were perceived to be particularly vulnerable upon release?
  • What information, if any, was received from prisons to inform probation practice for those on licence?

These questions were impossible to answer from the data we had. It felt very different from deaths in custody, which seem to be investigated much more ‘seriously’. That was five years ago and the probation world has changed almost out of all recognition with privatisation and the new Community Rehabilitation Companies.This is reflected in the new Probation Instructions which have replaced earlier circulars. I was shocked to learn, as a result of an email to the Ministry of Justice, that, despite “greater emphasis on learning and improvement” and a statement that “a national report will be published by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) each year (on deaths under probation supervision) in PI 01/2014”, the Government has decided not to make the data available to the public.This is really disappointing: no progress in five years? Perhaps we’ll embark on more FOIs…

Meanwhile, the Howard League is carrying out a new Inquiry into suicide prevention in prisons, with the Centre for Mental Health. It is of course difficult ‘learning’ within a culture of blame: a number of speakers spoke of the very negative impact on staff confidence (and therefore competence?) of inquests and of police investigations into deaths in custody. There were powerful thoughts on how organisations and individuals must feel enabled to do more to prevent suicide. All agreed that our common humanity should commit us to involving prisoners and their families in reducing the risk of suicide in prison and in the community. An inspirational day.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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