Dead inside

a crucifix hanging in a prison cell window

For someone on the edge of suicide or self-harm, no one would prescribe continuous upheaval and movement, high levels of uncertainty and stress and regular doses of isolation in bleak, understaffed institutions.

In our overcrowded prison system, while remand prisoners must be kept close to the court, sentenced prisoners will be moved on time and again. An average stay for a sentenced young man at Feltham has now been whittled down to about 10 days, before they are uprooted and moved on, to another young offender's institution. Just days after you have arrived, and perhaps tried to get to know other prisoners or staff, you find yourself back in an unyielding metal box in a van with no seatbelts so you don't try to throttle yourself.

Transport of cattle or sheep is better regulated than the movements of vulnerable people between one overcrowded jail and the next. If you are depressed or distressed or suffer from some form of psychosis imprisonment is almost bound to make you worse. No illusions - you won't have arrived in a good state: a fifth of all men and almost half of all women sent to jail have previously attempted suicide.

The suicide rate for men in prison is five times greater than that for men in the community. Boys aged 15-17 are even more likely - 18 times more likely - to kill themselves in prison than people their age in the community.

Nearly three-quarters of prisoners who kill themselves suffer from kind of mental disorder. Two-thirds have a history of drug misuse and nearly a third have a history of alcohol misuse.

With just eight week's basic training and very low staffing ratios, how can we expect prison officers to respond to the mentally ill?

This isn't all about facts and figures. A woman I met in a run-down prison was badly scarred: her face was burned, her eyebrows and much of her hair was missing. She explained that she wanted to be dead and that she had set fire to herself in a car park. As her body burned, the tree next to her had caught fire. The sentence for which she was serving time? Criminal damage to the tree.
The rising tide of suicide in our grossly overcrowded prison system must propel ministers to ask why we continue to lock up our most damaged citizens in our most inadequate institutions.

Prison is not a hospital: it is time we required the Department of Health to consider its responsibilities to divert the mentally ill from police cells and courts into proper healthcare, transferring people currently languishing in segregation units into hospital places. Prison must be a punishment of last resort, a place where you lose your liberty, not your life.

This article first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free