Self-harm epidemic in our prisons

Work with offenders on the latest prison safety statistics

Last week’s Safety in Custody Statistics make for particularly grim reading. The figures are produced by the Ministry of Justice and Office for National Statistics and cover deaths in prison in the 12 months up to September this year and assaults and self-harm in the year to June. They record a 40% increase in the number of people dying in prison, with most of the increase caused by coronavirus. The number of people who took their own life in prison also rose by 13% in the last year.

While the number of self-harm incidents fell during that period, these have rocketed in the second quarter of this year, suggesting that the fall in numbers was more associated with a lack of recording owing to extreme lockdown, than a real reduction in the number of people self-harming. In the April – June period, there were 14,007 self-harm incidents, up 16% on the previous quarter, comprising an 8% increase in male establishments and a 47% increase in female establishments. The picture for assaults is similar with lockdown meaning that the annual figure (until 30 June 2021) was down 30% but the last quarter saw an 11% increase to 5,128 incidents.


In the 12 months to September 2021, there were 396 deaths in prison custody, an increase of 40% from 283 deaths in the previous 12 months which corresponds with deaths related to Covid-19. From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to the end of September 2021, 159 prisoners have died within 28 days of having a positive Covid-19 test or where there was a clinical assessment that Covid-19 was a contributory factor in their deaths regardless of the cause of death. Of these 159 deaths, 132 are suspected to be due to Covid-19. The remaining 27 deaths are believed to be due to other causes although the prisoner had tested positive for Covid-19. You can see my ongoing monthly record of all COVID deaths for people in prison and on probation below.

This very sad total of deaths included 81 self-inflicted deaths, an increase of 13% from 72 in the previous 12 months.


There were 53,290 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to June 2021, down 13% from the previous 12 months (a 16% decrease in male establishments but a 2% increase in female establishments). Taking into account the fall in the prison average population since the start of 2020, the rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners decreased 13% in male establishments but increased 16% in female establishments in the 12 months to June 2021. In the most recent quarter there were 14,007 self-harm incidents, up 16% on the previous quarter (an 8% increase in male establishments and a 47% increase in female establishments).

The number of incidents per individual who self-harmed in female establishments was more than twice that in male establishments and increased in the latest year. In the 12 months to June 2021, there were 10.2 incidents of self-harm per self-harming female compared with 9.4 the previous 12 months, while for males it decreased to 4.0 incidents per self-harming individual from 4.3 the previous 12 months.

The proportion of incidents that required hospitalisation was higher in male establishments (5.8% compared to 2.8% in female establishments).


The yearly assaults figure is of course profoundly affected by the fact that almost everyone in prison was locked up for most of every day, greatly reducing the possibility of incidents of violence. In the 12 months to June 2021, there were 19,470 assault incidents, a 30% decrease from the previous 12 months. Assaults increased by 11% in the latest quarter to 5,128 incidents while the number of serious assaults increased by 1% to 506 incidents.

The rate of assault in male establishments decreased by 27% from the previous 12 months, while the rate in female establishments decreased by 10%. This resulted in assault rates for the 12 months to June 2021 being higher in female establishments (301 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) than in male establishments (246 incidents per 1,000 prisoners).


Comparing statistics over time at the moment is obviously problematic with the pandemic having a huge impact. At least 132 people in prison are tragically thought to have died from COVID. Official figures for the last two months (August and September) reveal a total of nine people dying from the virus, compared to none in July. Given the rising rates of infection in the community, we should, perhaps, be braced for more bad news in the months ahead.

The figures for self-harm and assaults are clearly affected by lockdown and it is not yet clear whether prisons, which have been slowly restoring more normal regimes will still be doing so by the time the next set of prison safety figures are published at the end of January.