Concerns grow over rising death toll in British jails

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The death toll in British prisons is “a national scandal,” a pressure group said Wednesday, calling for a reduction in inmate numbers just as the government is promising tougher sentences.

Inquest, which probes state-related deaths, said in a new report that there were six deaths and nearly two suicides every week inside British jails last year. It called the rate “shocking and unacceptable,” noting that many of the fatalities were found to be preventable and criticized record levels of distress and self-harm within the system. The charity said Prime Minister Boris Johnson should make “a substantial reduction in the prison population” and invest instead in health and community-based alternatives to jail.

Johnson and his Conservative party won a comfortable parliamentary majority at elections in December on a manifesto that included vowing to be tougher on crime. On Tuesday, Interior Minister Priti Patel and Justice Minister Robert Buckland unveiled plans to increase sentences for more serious crimes, including terrorism offenses. The plans also target the end of the early release of some prisoners.

Inquest’s Executive Director Deborah Coles said the current rate of prison deaths, alongside the repeated failure to enact change, were leaving inmates and their families “traumatized.” In its report, the charity found that there were 308 deaths in prison in the 12 months between September 2018 and September 2019, nearly double the number of a decade ago. Meanwhile, from January 2019 to June 2019, there were 166 incidents of self-harm every day, 60,594 incidents in total, compared to 25,253 in 2009.

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