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England and Wales prisons chief, Nick Hardwick, has warned of the ‘terrible toll’ of inmate suicides has had on our prison system.

Hardwick has warned that there has been a 69% rise in self-inflicted deaths in the last year and claims this is a sign of a deteriorating jail system. Hardwick also has warned that prisons are now gripped by rising violence, worsening safety and overcrowding.

Nick Hardwick, upon presenting his annual report, said the rate of self-inflicted deaths was at its highest for over a decade amongst inmates in England and Wales. The chief inspector claimed that the number of suicides was “the most unacceptable feature” of a prison system facing a “rapid deterioration” in safety.

“It is important that the bald statistics do not disguise the dreadful nature of each incident and the distress caused to the prisoner’s family, other prisoners and staff,” he said. “It is a terrible toll.”

This report comes on the heels of an investigation conducted by The Guardian into prison conditions. The Guardian was able to identify 134 people who died from January 2013 to 2 October 2014, an average of more than six a month. The investigation also uncovered that there were systematic failings  of the prisons which were contributory factors in the deaths.

Lynda and Jeff Davison, whose son Steven suffered serious mental health problems, killed himself at HMP Glen Parva in September 2013 after being locked up “for his own safety”. The parents called upon ministers to take action, “I think the government need to address this urgently; it has gone too far. Our family is still experiencing the ‘terrible toll’ this report talks about. We don’t want other families going through what we are.”

Hardwick has painted a brutal picture; a picture of inmates who bully, beat one another on an almost daily basis and where a legal high is not difficult to come across. Phil Rowland was one such victim. “I would know straight away if someone wanted to give me a kicking the next day, that is just how it was,” said the 17-year-old, who spent two months in a young offender institution before being released in August. Speaking of one fellow teen being held “He used to smash up the TV and cut himself pretty much every day. He had scars everywhere and the guards would know about the cutting because they would have to go in and clean him up, but no one did anything to help him.”

Ola Adeyi, who spent six months in prison for robbery, says the report holds little surprise for him. He claims that the bullying and was made worse by two factors; a lack of a trusted figure to talk to and the number of young men with mental illnesses who were being locked up.

“The most vulnerable time for me was when I first walked into the prison. You are put in there by yourself and judged and that makes you very vulnerable for those first few hours. It makes you feel like you are on your own and that is not good because it was one of the worst times of my life … Someone might be sad but they don’t want to sound weak because that is important in prison. And you can’t trust the officers not to tell people so you keep it to yourself and for me that is where the problems come.”

Hardwick would continue in his report saying “At its worst, overcrowding meant two prisoners sharing a six foot by 10 foot cell designed for one, with bunks along one wall, a table and chair for one, some shelves, a small TV, an unscreened toilet at the foot of the bunks, little ventilation and a sheet as a makeshift curtain. A few prisoners might spend 23 hours a day in such a cell. Twenty 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.”

Hardwick concluded by saying “Nevertheless, in my view, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures … was a very significant factor for the rapid deterioration in safety. Asked whether the service had been fortunate to avoid riots, Hardwick said: Managers nationally and locally have been very effective at spinning a lot of plates … One of the reasons why things have not been as bad as we might expect has been down to the work on the ground.”

The prison system in this country needs reform; there is no other way to phrase it. There is a catastrophic shortfall in how inmates are being treated. Men and women who suffer from mental illness who are forced into a situation where they are bullied and beaten has to have been a massive contributing factor towards the suicide rates. Either we need to overhaul the prison system, or we need to stop sending so many people to jail. The choice now lies at the feet of our government.