Suicide watch

Long-term prisoners are offered support on release from
prison but no such option exists for short-term prisoners leaving
them vulnerable to isolation and even suicide. Claire McCarthy,
from the Howard League for Penal Reform, looks at the problem of
ex-prisoners at risk on the outside.

Lester Christopher Shore left Pentonville Prison around midday
on 14 July 1999. By that evening he was dead. During his five
months in prison Shore had been identified as highly vulnerable. He
was a drug user. He had spent several periods on the prison’s
health care wing and had been placed on suicide watch on two
occasions. He had a history of mental health problems and had
previously been a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Days before
his release a full psychiatric report was ordered, though it was
never carried out.

In the weeks leading up to his release he had been refusing food
and water, leading to the loss of almost half his body weight. As a
result he was taken to hospital, suffering with malnutrition and
dehydration. There he refused treatment.

Despite these obvious indicators of distress and mental
instability, and despite the prison doctor’s reassurance to Shore’s
parents that appropriate arrangements would be made, he was
released on the day of his death, on his own, in a taxi. Before
reaching his home he diverted his journey to a car park, where he
leapt to his death.

Every year an unknown number of people (possibly as many as 50)
take their own lives soon after being released from prison because
the prison, probation and community-based services fail to support

Ex-prisoners have a complex range of problems, many of which are
serious predicators to suicide. For example, an offender is five
times more likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to
suffer a mental illness than others in the community. The
homelessness charity, Centrepoint, reports that 17 per cent of
young people in their hostels and shelters have been in prison and
that one-third of all homeless people have attempted suicide.

Despite these indicators of vulnerability, short sentence
prisoners receive little or no preparation for release and no
post-custodial supervision. Prisoners serving longer sentences are
supervised on release but even here the probation service
prioritises public protection over the welfare of the

Thousands of prisoners leave every year with nowhere to go and
no support, except for a meagre discharge grant. A member of staff
at Glen Parva Young Offenders’ Institution, Leicester, describes
the situation: “It is not an exaggeration to say that many young
men walk out of here with a carrier bag. They have nowhere to go.
No family. The only support network they have involves their drug
dealer. It’s no wonder they don’t survive on the outside for very

There is little co-ordination between prisons and
community-based services. Although prisons make referrals to
community drug programmes, ex-prisoners find it hard to start again
with support workers they do not know, and in many cases the
relationship breaks down. There are even fewer referrals to
community mental health teams. In most cases teams only find out
about someone because they are in a casualty unit or police
station. A psychologist working in a mental health team in east
London says they receive prison referrals “very rarely”. The
psychologist adds that: “It’s just so much better if we know about
people before they are released. With one individual, who was
released from Weare Prison, in Portland, Dorset, we were invited to
go and be involved in a case conference before release and we were
able to organise support for the client when he returned to London.
But normally we just don’t know about people.”

Those serving sentences of more than 12 months are supervised by
the probation service but this work is increasingly focused on
probation areas meeting numerical targets for contact and
completion of offending behaviour courses. The caring and welfare
role of the probation service of old is very much out of fashion.
For instance, Scott was 24 years old when his probation officer
spoke to the Howard League. He has attempted suicide several times
and regularly self-harms. Scott’s probation officer told the Howard
League that she felt it was nearly impossible for probation
officers to support vulnerable people adequately because of the
size of their caseloads and the pressure to focus on other

Resettlement has become the new buzzword of the criminal justice
system. Previously known as “throughcare”, it refers to the process
of preparation for and support after release from prison. The
primary tool is the supervision plan, which is to be devised by the
probation officer in collaboration with the prisoner, before they
leave prison. In reality, this is rarely the case. According to a
recent Home Office report1 only 7 per cent of
supervision plans had been written 15 days prior to release and
only 74 per cent were done 15 days after release. In 2001, only 56
per cent of supervision plans clearly identified non
offence-related needs and follow up work was undertaken on these
issues in only 72 per cent of cases.

In light of this, it comes as no surprise that suicide
prevention is hardly at the top of the National Probation
Directorate’s agenda. The directorate does not collect national
statistics for those who end their own lives while under
supervision and there are no national guidelines or policies on
supervising individuals at risk of suicide.

In a newly published report on the subject of suicide after
prison release,2 the Howard League argues for the
creation of a safer supervision policy group within the
directorate. The group would record and monitor all deaths,
identify trends, set targets for reduction and spread good practice
in supporting vulnerable offenders.

For unlike a death in custody, a suicide after prison release
triggers no automatic investigation. As a response to calls from
Lester Shore’s parents for a full investigation into his death, a
Home Office spokesperson told the local newspaper: “The Home Office
always looks into a death in custody, but because Mr Shore died
after he was released from prison an investigation is not

Probation areas may undertake internal investigations but they
are not independent, and the findings are not publicly available. A
senior probation officer told the Howard League that: “In the
interests of good practice we hold investigations and reviews about
all deaths, mostly for the benefit of staff. But even when we
develop a new policy or process which we think is an improvement
there is no way of sharing best practice.” This means that valuable
lessons about these tragic cases are being lost.

While deaths, particularly suicides, in custody rightly attract
considerable attention, when ex-prisoners are desperate or
disturbed enough to end their own lives it goes virtually
unnoticed. It is clear that there must be a new focus on the
complex needs of ex-prisoners as a group. There needs to be
partnership working between prisons, probation and social services,
local authorities and the voluntary sector in order to do more to
ensure that those who leave prison are viewed as more than just a
potential threat to the community. The Howard League believes that
society must accept that many ex-prisoners are victims too; 56 per
cent of young offenders have been in local authority care, many
have suffered physical or sexual abuse, been failed by the
education system or have suffered mental ill health. Post-custodial
supervision and care must be framed in this context.

No one denies that the public is entitled to be protected.
However, it must be remembered that those who have been in custody
are also members of the community, and if their life experiences or
personal circumstances make them a potential danger to themselves,
they deserve protection too.

Claire McCarthy is a policy officer at the Howard League
for Penal Reform


1 Home Office, Through the Prison Gate, HMSO,

2 Claire McCarthy, Suicide and Self-harm Prevention:
Following Release from Prison Howard League for Penal Reform, 2002.
Copies are available from the Howard League on 020 7249 7373 or
through its website at

3 ‘Prison probe call by parents’, Uxbridge Gazette,
16 August 2000

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