Suicide in Prison:
The Abondonment of Hope

Black Mental Health (BHM) UK organised a round table discussion on 19 January 2015, hosted by Lord Toby Harris on ‘self-inflicted’ deaths of young people in prison, at which some 24 African practitioners and academics/activists, including me, shared verbal evidence.

Est. read time: 25 min


O   n 6 February 2014, the Justice Secretary announced an independent review into self-inflicted deaths in National Offender Management Service (NOMS) custody of 18-24 year olds and invited Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody to conduct it. Black Mental Health (BHM) UK organised a round table discussion on 19 January 2015, hosted by Lord Toby Harris on ‘self-inflicted’ deaths of young people in prison, at which some 24 African practitioners and academics/activists, including me, shared verbal evidence. BHM UK’s invitation to the round table noted:

‘The purpose of the review is to make recommendations to reduce the risk of future self-inflicted deaths in custody and focus on themes include vulnerability, information sharing, safety, staff prisoner relationships, family contact, and staff training. There is debate as to whether or not young people from the UK’s African Caribbean Community are more affected by this disturbing trend of self-inflicted deaths’.

This written submission supplements the verbal contribution I made to the round table discussion.

I write in three capacities. First, as a former Assistant Education Officer and Head of Community Education in the Inner London Education Authority where I held responsibility for education provision in all five London prisons; second, as a former Director of Education and Leisure Services in the London Borough of Hackney and third, as Founder-Trustee of the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN), a charitable organisation that provides advocacy and representation services to excluded school students, predominantly males of African heritage, and their parents/carers. In addition, I am an independent consultant and have delivered organisational auditing and staff training services to young offender and prison establishments in the North West of England.

A suicide or ‘self inflicted death’ is an episode. It is an episode that rarely ever results from an individual of sound mind and contentment of spirit deciding that it would be a wonderful thing to experience what it is like to die and consequently killing themselves in order to get the experience. Most suicides are the culmination of a process, a process of self erasure that represents the abandonment of hope and the death of aspiration.

To concentrate solely on the act of suicide and upon the circumstances immediately surrounding that act, therefore, would eclipse completely the genesis of the process of self erasure and the life events, protracted or not, that contribute to that process. It is for that reason I believe BHM UK’s focus upon the representation of African heritage victims of suicide, males in particular, is so critical to Lord Harris’ review.

One hopes that Lord Harris’ review would provide statistical evidence of the number of 18-24 year olds of African heritage who commit suicide in custody in UK prisons, relative to their number in young offender institutions, as compared to the number committing suicide outside prison, relative to their number in the African heritage population in the UK.

Whatever those comparisons would tell us, I take it as axiomatic and incontrovertible that the number of 18-24 year olds committing suicide in custody correlates to the disproportionate number of Africans in the prison population in the country, relative to our representation in the UK, or England population overall.
“Stop n Search at Notting Hill Carnival 2011”, by Maja Kucova belkus (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Stop n Search at Notting Hill Carnival 2011”, by Maja Kucova belkus (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Such suicides also correlate, therefore, to the condition of being young and black in British society, a condition that is characterised by over-representation and disproportionality on a number of indices: from school exclusions (including exclusion of looked after children and those with assessed special education needs from primary, secondary and special schools), to quality of schooling outcomes, to police ‘stops and searches’, to unemployment, to involvement with the criminal justice system.

Some of those life events combine to induce low self esteem and individuals’ lack of belief in their capacity to lead well adjusted lives, as well as low aspirations and expectations of success in life. As such, the correlation between ethnicity, gender, educational disadvantage and social inequality as a backcloth to offending, nihilism and hopelessness is something which is increasingly acknowledged, but such knowledge does not give rise to coherent, cross-cutting policies and initiatives to break those links.

Forty years ago, with Derek Humphry, then a staff reporter at the Sunday Times, I wrote ‘Police Power and Black People’ which was published by Panther in 1972. The concluding chapter of that book deals extensively with the issues of schooling and young black people’s involvement in crime. Two years earlier, John Lambert, a sociologist at the University of Birmingham, in his study of police and race relations in that city pointed to the under-representation of West Indians, young and old, among the population of offenders, but warned, presciently, that there was a very real danger that their numbers would increase:

“In contrast with the typical British delinquent and his family, the few West Indian delinquents appear to come from families with high aspirations and ambitions. West Indians in general are aspiring and ambitious; many are acutely aware of the poor status that attaches to the kinds of areas and houses in which they live and are ambitious for a better way of life. They are not part of the failure that life in such areas means for many. They seek success within the general framework of values and generally rise above the delinquent and criminal standards prevalent in the areas in which they live.

Clearly the danger is that if their legitimate aspirations for betterment in terms of employment and housing opportunity are not met, with time the crime and disorder which surround them will contaminate their life style and lead, in years to come, to a crime rate that matches that of their neighbourhoods. Such influences may particularly infect and misdirect their children’s achievement and undermine their chances for success and mobility”.

John Lambert: Crime, Police and Race Relations, pp.128-130, Oxford University Press and Institute of Race Relations, 1970.

Black boys are three to five times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts and ten times more likely to be the subject of ‘managed moves’ (voluntary withdrawal by parents, usually at the instigation of the school). Roughly the same number of mixed (African-Caribbean & English white) boys are permanently excluded as Black Caribbean boys from maintained schools. Slightly more Black Caribbean boys are permanently excluded from Academies.

In the Borough of Lambeth in 2008/09, for example, Black Caribbean students represented 18.4% of the school population in the borough, but accounted for 44.6% of permanent exclusions, a difference of 26.2%. Mixed heritage children of white and Black Caribbean parentage made up 1.4% of the school population in Lambeth, but accounted for 14.3% of permanent exclusions, a difference of 12.9%.

Lambeth School Exclusions Scrutiny Committee Report, 2010

Nationally, persistent disruptive behaviour accounts for the highest percentage of school exclusions as it does in Lambeth and most other London boroughs. Over the years, research has shown that black school students (Black Caribbean boys in particular) receive harsher punishment, including fixed term and permanent exclusion, for the same misdemeanours committed by all other students.

Black young people are seven to ten times more likely to be stopped and searched. Black or Black British people are five times more likely to be arrested than white people. Baroness Scotland, former Attorney General, confirmed in her evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 2007 that ‘three quarters of the young black male population will soon be on the DNA database’.

In June 2007, global majority (minority ethnic) groups of all ages made up 8% of the UK population but accounted for 26% of the prison population (19 per cent being British nationals)

Statistics on Race & the Criminal Justice System 2006/2007; Ministry of Justice 2008

20 – 25 per cent of those in custody were 18 to 24 year olds. Young adults with a mixed ethnic background were over-represented: 18-24 year olds make up nearly 40% of all mixed ethnic groups in custody.

In Bristol in 2007, I worked with 80 Black 12-16 year old school students, two thirds of them males, from three schools including an Academy. At one point in the programme, I set them the following task: at this stage of your life, write down the three things you fear most.

Without conferring, each student listed their three worst fears. Having collated their responses, the picture that emerged was as follows. Their fears, listed in the order of most frequently expressed to least frequently, were as follows:

Being killed/murdered
Going pen (going to prison)
Getting stabbed
Our youths
Not achieving goals
Not being able to afford the things I want in the future( house, car, etc)
Not getting the opportunities I want
My loved ones dying around me
Anything happening to my family
Losing loved ones
Not succeeding
Living by myself
The Tories in power

It was deeply concerning that so many young people lived daily with the fear of being killed or physically harmed. It was instructive, too, that they had a concern that they would not fulfil their potential. Worse yet, when we discussed their responses and I asked how aware their schools were of their anxieties and how were their teachers assisting them in dealing with their fears, most of them commented that these were not matters of concern to their schools.

Despite that, however, some of their pranks and their boisterous conduct towards one another were often interpreted by schools as ‘bringing gang culture into school’, or wanting to operate ‘vigilante groups in the school’. Such claims were invariably accompanied by warnings about ‘zero tolerance’ of ‘that culture which has no place in our school’. These claims by headteachers are made increasingly in letters to parents informing them of the fixed-term or permanent exclusion of their child, as we in CEN have found in our advocacy and representation work with excluded students and their families.

It has been our experience in CEN that the sorts of behaviours and incidents involving individual or groups of boys which heretofore headteachers or pastoral heads would have dealt with routinely, are being referred to the resident police officer who, in secondary schools in particular, is seen as part of the school staff. Students are therefore being routinely warned, or threatened with police action, or/and permanent exclusion if certain behaviours are repeated or similar incidents recur.

No suggestion here that it is the business of the school to assist students to unlearn inappropriate behaviours, or unacceptable ways of resolving conflict. The emphasis is exclusively on coercion, conformity to rules and punishment, rather than on learning, growth and development of emotional literacy, self-management and life skills.

There is a growing tendency for schools, police, neighbourhood workers and civil society generally to attribute the conduct of young black males as reflecting and being tantamount to ‘gang’ membership and ‘gang culture’. This is epitomised by comments made by former Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2007 and by Prime Minister David Cameron during the widespread disturbances in August 2011 following the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London.

On Wednesday April 11 2007, the Daily Express under a by-line: Blair action pledge on gang culture, reported Tony Blair as saying:

‘Britain’s black communities must speak out against gang culture’, as he renewed promises of tough action in the wake of a series of murders of young people.

‘The Prime Minister insisted recent “severe disorder” was not a symptom of a wider social problem but caused by individuals who needed to be “taken out of circulation”.

It would take “significantly toughened” knife and gun laws, intensive police work and the denunciation of the culprits’ communities, he told an audience in Cardiff. Mr Blair said tackling violence was the “missing dimension” to an otherwise successful regeneration of Britain’s cities….

“There needs to be an intensive police focus on these groups. The ring-leaders need to be identified and taken out of circulation; if very young, as some are, put in secure accommodation

“The black community – the vast majority of whom in these communities are decent, law-abiding people horrified at what is happening – need to be mobilised in denunciation of this gang culture that is killing innocent young black kids.

“But we won’t stop this by pretending it isn’t young black kids doing it.”

(My emphasis)

Mr Blair was careful to distinguish between ‘the vast majority of decent, law abiding people’ in the black community and ‘culprits… who needed to be taken out of circulation’. By counterposing those two groups, Blair is suggesting that the decent, law abiding black community should denounce, disown and distance itself from those causing ‘severe disorder’. But, even if one were to accept his analysis that the conduct of those ‘culprits’ -who according to him are responsible for ‘this gang culture’- was not symptomatic of ‘a wider social problem’, that still does not explain the massive disproportionality in the number of black males in young offender institutions and prisons up and down the land.

The Youth Justice Board’s statistics (2014) indicate that African heritage people (aged 10–18) make up 3.5% of the general population, but account for 21% of under 18s in young offender institutions, while all other groups are under-represented, relative to their proportion of the general population. Data published in 2014 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) indicates that there is now a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prison in the UK than in the USA.

Beyond ‘Joint Enterprise’

Cambridge Institute of Criminology research indicates disproportionality also in the number of African heritage young people convicted of ‘joint enterprise’:- 37.2% while accounting for 3.5% of the 10-18 population. In ‘joint enterprise’, a person may be found guilty for another person’s crime if they knowingly assist or encourage the crime and agree to act together with the primary offender.

This has major implications for the state’s construction of ‘gangs’ and the questions: when is a group of young people not a ‘gang’ acting with a presumed common purpose and collective group identity? For generations, there have been rivalries between secondary schools in the same or adjacent districts. Those have invariably given rise to joint action by hedteachers and governing bodies in the particular local authority, typically with the support of parents, bus companies and the local police. Nowadays, such encounters would immediately be seen as involving ‘gangs’, except of course in mono-ethnic and mono-cultural suburban areas, or in ‘middle England’.

Youth violence and crime

Some police forces operate a robust and aggressive ‘dispersal’ policy that empowers police officers to ‘split up and move on’ groups of young people standing still or walking in public places. In Birmingham, for example, brothers and cousins visiting one another’s homes or walking to gyms, or leisure and youth centres, are made to split up and go in a different direction from the rest of their group, often after the ‘obligatory’ searches to establish what they’re carrying and what their business is on the streets.

This form of essentialising (in a nutshell, seeing the profile and behaviour patterns of a section of the population as essential characteristics that define the population as a whole), in which police, schools, Mayors, Home Secretaries and the rest see the world of inner-city youth only through the prism of ‘gangs’, not only distorts the relationship between young people and those in authority, it effectively constitutes a ‘war on youth’ which mirrors the state’s ‘war on terror’, a war which impacts indiscriminately upon all African and Asian heritage young people.

Professor Claire Alexander in a study for the Runnymede Trust provides a much needed critique of the construction of ‘gangs’ that drives the strategies of governments and police to combat ‘gangs’.

Alexander, C. 2008. (Re)Thinking ‘Gangs’. London: Runnymede Trust. eScholarID:208047

Building upon that work, Patrick Williams, a senior lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, writing in the current issue of Race & Class, demonstrates how the state and the police, aided by certain academics have created a ‘gang industry’ that conflates youth crime and race, giving rise to increasingly draconian measures for dealing with black young people engaged in youth crime.

Williams make the critical point in all this, i.e. that the ‘gang’/race nexus eschews any consideration of the structural factors and societal experiences that engender the anomie, nihilism and attitudes to offending that influence the conduct and attitudes of young people identified as ‘gang members’.

Williams, P. 2015. Criminalising the Other: challenging the race-gang nexus. Race & Class, Vol. 56, Number 3. London: Institute of Race Relations

On 22 January 2015, the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, launched ‘One rule for all’ – a tough new gang intervention programme’. The press release on the initiative stated:

The Mayor, Boris Johnson, has announced the launch of a tough new gang intervention pilot, which will see members of some of the most active gangs in London collectively punished for the criminal actions of individual members, as part of the Mayor’s ongoing commitment to tackle gang violence in the capital.

The Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC) are providing £200,000 funding for the “Shield” pilot, which will be run in partnership with the Metropolitan Police and three pilot boroughs – Haringey, Westminster and Lambeth –chosen for their well-established gang programmes and strong links with the communities affected.

It is the first project in the capital to go beyond individual members to target gangs as a whole and will see every known member of a gang penalised through a range of civil and criminal penalties when any one gang member commits a violent crime such as a stabbing. Under the pilot, the arrest and prosecution of the main perpetrator will be fast-tracked while the rest of the gang will face a range of criminal and civil sanctions.

These include injunctions preventing them from entering a certain area, or requiring them to be recalled to prison if on licence, or mandate them to attend an employment course. Any members of the gang who genuinely wants to leave their violent lifestyle behind will also be helped to do so under the pilot scheme. (My emphasis)

Apart from creating a legal minefield, this pilot scheme is clearly an incubator for massive miscarriages of justice. Apart from the fact that Johnson fails to state the criteria by which any young person would be judged to be a member of a ‘gang’, the presumption here is that all youth groups designated a ‘gang’ are engaged in ‘gang violence’ and that all members of that group could legitimately be held responsible for the actions of any one member, irrespective of whether or not they all sought to persuade that member to renounce violence and resolve conflict by other means. Meanwhile, the Government’s Serious Crime Bill:

‘includes a number of provisions designed to make it easier to obtain injunctions (against ‘gang’ members for a maximum of two years), for example removing the need to show a member wears displays of gang allegiance’.

London Evening Standard, 19 January 2015

The Mayor’s press release carried a ‘note to editors’ which stated:

Since the launch of the Trident Gang Crime Command in 2012 there have been significant reductions in gun and knife crime; however gangs in the capital are still responsible for 40 per cent of all shootings and 17 per cent of all recorded violent crime.

According to current MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) intelligence there are 186 recognised gangs in London, comprising of around 3,600 gang members. Fifty-eight gangs are considered particularly active – accounting for two thirds of offences where a named gang has been identified as being involved. Gangs range from organised criminal networks involved in Class A drugs supply and firearms, to street-based gangs involved in violence and personal robbery. MPS data shows 1,306 gang members are currently subject to judicial restrictions such as gang injunctions, ASBOs, electronically tagging or managed under license.

Presumably, Boris Johnson would love to see those 3,600 ‘gang’ members ‘taken out of circulation’ as Tony Blair called for in 2010, further adding to the burgeoning prison population and the massive over-representation of African heritage people among them.

Johnson is introducing this gang intervention programme at the same time that Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisoners, is reporting on ‘gang culture’ in prisons. Reporting on 13 January 2015 upon his inspection of Feltham young offenders’ institute (in which 75% of all inmates are so-called black and minority ethnic, Hardwick pointed to the worrying situation involving ‘gangs’ at Feltham. LBC reported as follows:

A government watchdog has warned that gang culture is rife in Feltham young offenders’ institute, with 48 gangs active.

Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, has written a report that states that the approx. 240 boys currently held in the institute “have to join” gangs in order to avoid being picked on. He also identified staff shortages as a major problem, saying it had led to some of the young offenders being locked up for 23 hours of the day. They’re aged 15-18 and the report suggest staff are engaged in “constant juggling” in order to prevent serious acts of violence breaking out. But the report included descriptions of “reckless and unpredictable” attacks amongst the inmates.

Reporting on Hardwick’s Annual Report in October 2014, the Guardian noted:

Hardwick said the spike in suicides, and the rise in violence and self-harm, cannot be attributed to a single cause. But he said: “In my view it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures, particularly in the second half of 2013-14 and particularly in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor.”

“A few prisoners might spend 23 hours a day in such a cell. 20 hours was relatively common in a local prison. Prisoners would eat most of their meals in their cell. The food budget was reduced from £2.20 per prisoner per day in 2012 to £1.96 a day in 2013.”

Too many vulnerable prisoners were segregated. At least seven of those who took their own lives had been in segregation. Recommendations from the prisons and probation ombudsman following self-inflicted deaths were too often not heeded or implemented, and understaffing, both from lack of resource and unfilled vacancies, contributed to the rise in self-inflicted deaths…..

The human impact of the highest level of suicides in prisons for 10 years was described by the chief inspector as “a terrible toll”. …It was the rise in self-inflicted deaths, he said, which was “the most unacceptable feature” of the state of prisons today – gripped by rising levels of violence, deteriorating safety, overcrowding and shortages of staff.

Hardwick highlighted how safety outcomes in prisons have declined significantly, and in a third of prisons were deemed not good enough in 2013-14.

If we accept Blair’s claim that certain crimes committed by young black people are not symptomatic of a wider social problem, is it being suggested by Tony Blair and sociologists and criminologists of his persuasion that disproportionality in the number of black people in prison is explained by their genetic predisposition to commit crime?

The disproportionality that persists in BME representation in the prison population cannot be separated from the growth of a privatised industrial prison complex that the government is creating to deal with the increasing number of people being sent to jail. Existing government policies and the vying between political parties as to who could be toughest on crime would most likely lead to ever increasing numbers of African, Asian and mixed heritage people in prison.

Here then, is a Diaspora that having been rendered surplus to requirements in ‘the colonies’, were brought to help rebuild Britain after two devastating World Wars, only to become surplus to requirements all over again, a status that has been visited upon each succeeding generation.

In order to control and contain them, the British state is assembling a 21st century brand of plantation owners, Serco, G4S, Sodexo and the rest, to help run, for profit, a national offender containment and management service, rather than anything resembling a national offender rehabilitation service. These 21st century ‘slave masters’ will manage this and future generations of Africans, ‘Made in Britain’, in much the same way as their forebears managed the enslaved Ancestors of those new Africans.

Given the evidence the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prison Officers Association and others place before successive governments about escalating violence and unrest in the prison system, where ever longer sentences for causing mayhem inside or outside prison is evidently not serving as a deterrent for those who have abandoned hope and are ready to die with their aspirations, it surely won’t be long before prison guards are toting guns, tasers, pepper spray and other such kit in order to keep themselves safe and ensure containment.

In 2006, a report for the Department of Work and Pensions noted that African & Asian people make up 1 in 13 of the UK population. In the preceding 20 years, they accounted for two-thirds of the growth of the total UK population. African Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups have the lowest educational attainment and lowest occupational status:

‘..the net disadvantage of ethnic minorities in the labour market has become greater for men born in the UK. Those born in the UK have gained higher qualifications than their overseas-born parents, but the playing field has become more uneven. ..

This ethnic penalty means greater unemployment for Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Caribbean men, and even more so for those born in the UK’.

L. Simpson, K. Purdam, A. Tajar, E. Fieldhouse, V. Gavalas, M. Tranmer,J. Pritchard and D. Dorling Ethnic minority populations and the labour market: an analysis of the 1991 and 2001 Census, DWP, 2006

Britain adopts a more punitive approach to young people of school age than most other European countries. It certainly excludes more children from school than any other European country. Such punitive measures, however, have the effect of compounding young people’s social exclusion and sense of being rejected by society rather than ‘teaching them a lesson’ that might deter them and others from similar conduct.

Recently, in London, I addressed a gathering of ex-offenders and their families. At the end of the session a young man sought me out and told me of his situation. He had been excluded from his secondary school, fixed term, on a number of occasions and permanently at age 15. He was convicted and imprisoned at age 16. Now 27, the longest period he has spent out of jail since 16 was eight weeks.

Currently out on licence, he is trying to find work and he sleeps in a car as none of his relatives would have him come and live with them because they feel the risk of them being harmed by people coming after him is far too great. He has not been able to find work as would-be employers tell him he ‘has spent too much time inside’. He wants to turn his life around, but feels that he just cannot access the support he needs in the community in order to do so. He has found himself in a similar situation several times before and each time he has ‘ended up right back inside’.

He now doubts whether he would ever be able to get over the emotional scars ‘that have built up in layers from when I was at school and lead a normal life. I would like to write my story and lots of things I carry around in my head, but I feel I need I need some help with that. This is why I was determined to grab you before you left’.

It costs the government roughly £100,000 to keep one young person in gaol for a year. For every ten young people in a young offender institution, the cost is £1m. Where those young people are looked after children in local authority care, the cumulative cost is considerably higher. How much more cheaply and in a more humane and children friendly environment could the state provide for such people, before they offend…, in a learning environment that acknowledges their emotional and developmental support needs, rather than one that effectively makes them yet another statistic among the 135,000 children not in mainstream schooling provision and in relation to whom the last government introduced its ‘Back on Track’ programme.

This programme was designed to encourage private providers to make provision ‘otherwise than at school’ for those 135,000 school students, the equivalent of 135 large secondary schools. Private provision or not, evidence suggests that a disproportionate number of that 135,000 would join the ranks of those rendered surplus to requirement, of those with poor schooling outcomes and of the 60% in the euphemistically called ‘secure estate’ who are functionally illiterate and yet have no access to education in prison as an entitlement.


While the above is not related directly to the incidence of self-inflicted killings among 18 to 24 year olds, I believe it provides an important context to youth offending. It raises questions about a penal policy that puts more and more people, especially the young and dispossessed, into already overcrowded prisons, there to implode upon themselves and react violently to the containment regime that displaces any notion of rehabilitation and acquiring skills for making a fresh start.

It certainly speaks to the issue of the extent and quality of self-management skills, emotional maturity and coping mechanisms young people in custody have that might assist them in managing the experience of imprisonment and of the brutalising culture that characterises so many prison regimes, and that help determine whether they see rehabilitation as a goal and as a distinct possibility, or consider that life is just not worth living.

Above all, it poses a challenge to government of any hue with regard to the way the nation deals with the inevitable results of the application of neo-liberal policies, including marketization, the privatisation of everything and the philosophy of the survival of the fittest. When the state represents to a growing section of the population the devil that takes the hindmost, and when the social structure is designed to produce more and more of those left behind, it is time for all of us to ask searching questions about the cost to the society of this planned human obsolescence, especially when it is so patently racialized.

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