Woodhill prisons’s suicide epidemic is by far the worst in the UK - but it’s not the governor’s fault, says expert

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Woodhill prison has come a tragic top of the league in suicide stakes, with significantly more prisoners taking their own lives than in any other jail in the UK.

A newly-released report shows 17 Woodhill inmates have committed suicide since 2013.

This compares to seven at Wandsworth - which is Britain’s biggest prison - nine at Wormwood Scrubs and six at Pentonville.

And the figure is shamefully higher than dozens of other jails, which average just two or three deaths during the same period.

The report, produced jointly by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Centre for Mental Health charity, states that urgent action is needed to make prisons become safer, healthier places in order to reduce suicide risk.

It finds that the rise in the number of prison suicides has coincided with cuts to staffing and budgets and a rise in the number of people in prison, resulting in overcrowding. Violence has increased and safety has deteriorated.

It reveals prisoners are spending up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells and the imposition of prison punishments has increased.

The national prison suicide rate, at 120 deaths per 100,000 people, is about 10 times higher than the rate in the general population.

The report insists that investing in staffing must go hand in hand with a reduction in the prison population if prisons are to be made safer.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said: “The number of people dying by suicide in prison has reached epidemic proportions. No one should be so desperate while in the care of the state that they take their own life, and yet every three days a family is told that a loved one has died behind bars.

“Cutting staff and prison budgets while allowing the number of people behind bars to grow unchecked has created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery.

“This report makes clear that there are practical steps that can be taken to make prisons safer.”

Ms Crook is this week due to meet the Secretary of State for Justice today to outline outlining the Howard League’s plan to reduce pressure on the prison system.

She said: “By taking bold but sensible action to reduce the number of people in prison, we can save lives and prevent more people being swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair.”

Meanwhile prison expert Professor David Wilson, who was Woodhill’s first governor when it open in 1991, has defended current governor Rob Davis.

“It is wrong to personalise this and blame Mr Davis. It is not his fault,” he told the Citizen.

Professor Wilson blames the complexity of Woodhill coupled with the chronic staff shortages.

“Woodhill has a highly complex regime because it has to perform so many different functions. It is a local prison and a remand prison yet it has specialist units and a protected witness protection unit. On top of that it is a high security prison for Cat A prisoners.

“Juggling all that with far too few staff is almost impossible for any governor.”