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Gate Fever


In prison they talk about gate fever to describe the state some people are in just before release: excitement, but also anxiety – itching for freedom, but life on-the-out a frightening prospect. Staff can catch it too. As release dates approach, emails fly between probation, housing, health, police officers (anyone with statutory responsibility) to try and make sure the worst doesn’t happen, not again. Anxiety about things going wrong – and who will be blamed if and when they do – is rife in our criminal justice system. Moving around a prison, you spend a lot of time opening and shutting gates. On most, a sign tells you to ‘prove the lock’ – so you push at every gate you’ve just locked to make sure you didn’t imagine what you’ve just done. But there’s no sign telling you to prove the lock on preventing people in prison from killing themselves.

According to the latest safety in custody statistics from the Ministry of Justice, deaths in 2016 were up 19 per cent overall, and self-inflicted deaths were up 11 per cent. There were 113 suicides. There’s no measure of the near misses, but many more than 113 people in prison will have come close to killing themselves last year. The statistics should be treated with caution: some parts of the prison system will be faring worse than others, and suicide always has a complex aetiology. But the fact that suicide and all other types of violence have been steadily rising in our prisons should be cause for alarm.

Assessing suicide risk is an inexact process – properly so. But one of the things that helps, I found when I worked as a probation officer, is being curious about your emotional response to the other person, and theirs to you. How hard is it for them to reach you? And in the reaching, how much violence is there? It all depends on establishing and maintaining relationships.  If a prison is deemed unsafe for both staff and inmates – as HMYOI Feltham was earlier this year – then such relationships are impossible. Officers then try to manage the risk, rather than work through the distress.

A prisoner thought to be at risk of suicide or self-harm is placed on what’s known as an ACCT (it stands for ‘Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork’). A bright orange folder gets passed between the wing officers as they change shift. The folder records the problem and dictates such things as how often an individual needs to be checked, and how many interactions officers should have with them. If the risk is very high, the prisoner is put under constant observation, in a cell that has bars and a thick sheet of Perspex instead of the usual metal door; an officer sits outside around the clock to make sure nothing happens. Deaths in custody often look like the result of staff incompetence that borders on callousness. But blaming individual officers doesn’t help to mend the fractured system they have to work in.

In Suicide in Prisons, the psychologists Graham Towl and David Crighton argue that the best solution is to lock fewer people up. In the absence of the political courage to achieve that, staff need better training and more support. Research by the Centre for Mental Health and the Howard League for Penal Reform shows that prisoners agree: the staff make the difference on the ground. As simple as this answer is, it’s also provocative. To give staff the resources, training and support to work safely with chronic and acute suicide risk, day in and day out, would call into question many of the false preconceptions that the mass use of prison is founded on: that punishment works; that committing a crime is an act of rational self-interest; that perpetrators are never victims; that other people’s badness is the measure of our goodness.

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