Inmates at Bovingdon prison self-harmed hundreds of times in a year

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Experts believe prison lockdowns and enforced solitude could be contributing to mental distress behind bars

Inmates harmed themselves hundreds of times while behind bars at Mount Prison in a year, figures reveal.

Prisoners self-harmed at least 232 times in the 12 months to September 2020, a decrease from 317 times the year before, figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show.

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At least 24 of these incidents were serious enough to warrant a hospital visit

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Cutting, drug overdoses and attempted hanging are among cases that must be logged as self-harm by staff at the facility, which housed around 1,019 people that September.

Latest figures from the MoJ show a quarterly decrease in incidents, down to 40 between July and September from 48 the three months before, with incidents across England and Wales also in decline since a record high was reported in the year to September 2019.

The MoJ says that the most recent figures reflect an exceptional time, given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the prison population, while experts believe prison lockdowns and enforced solitude could be contributing to mental distress behind bars.

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In an effort to contain coronavirus, facilities have introduced more restrictive regimes, with visits limited or suspended and movement of prisoners restricted.

In response to the pandemic, the MoJ has enabled continued family contact through more than 1,500 secure mobile phones and secure video calls and provided a range of in-cell activities and learning to mitigate the impact of isolation.

The Howard League for Penal Reform said the severity of the regimes meant tens of thousands of people had spent hours – up to 22 a day – in their cells, forced to endure solitude in “grim conditions”.

Chief executive Frances Crook said: “The mental distress caused by isolation can affect people in many different ways, some of which may not be evident for months or years.”

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Prisons and Probations Minister Lucy Frazer QC MP said prison staff had put tremendous effort into keeping inmates safe but acknowledged that the increased restrictions were “extremely tough” for them.

She said: "The increased restrictions have undoubtedly saved lives but we know they are extremely tough on prisoners - and we quickly rolled out video calls, in-cell education and extra support in response.

“Although violence and self-harm started falling before the pandemic and are down again this year, we must be more vigilant than ever about providing support in this incredibly challenging period.”

Across prisons in England and Wales, there were 58,870 incidents in the 12 months to September last year, 2,843 of which required hospital attention.

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That was down by 5% on the previous year, reflecting a 7% decrease at male establishments but an 8% increase at female prisons.

In the most recent quarter self-harm was up 9% on the previous quarter, comprising a 5% increase in male establishments and a 24% increase in female establishments.

Across England and Wales, the rate of incidents now stands at 595 per 1,000 male prisoners and 3,557 per 1,000 female.

At Mount Prison there were an estimated 228 incidents per 1,000 inmates that year, based on the latest population figures.

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The figures show that some of those who self-harm do so multiple times, with men likely to harm themselves on average 4.2 times each, compared to 10 times each for women.

Work is currently underway to roll-out a revised version of the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) case management system this year. This has been prioritised for roll-out in the female estate and ACCT pilot sites first.

The MoJ has produced a range of products to support governors in devising and implementing local safety and welfare plans designed to mitigate risks and promote wellbeing.

New guidance for staff on understanding and supporting someone who is self-harming, has also been developed. This has drawn on guidance from the NHS and third sector, academic research, learning from inpatient mental health services, prisoner focus groups and good practice examples from establishments.

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