Action is needed to tackle rise in prison suicides, says Samaritans

Samaritans is calling on the Government to recruit and retain more prison staff in the face of sharp  rises in the rates of self-harm and suicide in jails.

In the past year to June 2016, the self-inflicted death rate in prisons has risen by 20 per cent, self-harm is up by 27 per cent [1] and numbers of prison staff have fallen by 25 per cent over the last six years.

Samaritans volunteers train prison Listeners to provide emotional support to prisoners who are struggling to cope. The prison Listener scheme, which began in Swansea prison, operates through a long standing partnership between Samaritans and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  who have a shared goal of reducing suicide in prison. The scheme has been running for 25 years this month in England and Wales.

Samaritans volunteers who visit their local prison to train and support Listeners, regularly witness the  effects of a reduced number of  prison staff on the prison regime.

The suicide rate in prison is estimated to be between 7 and 12 times that of the general population [2] and prison suicide costs the tax payer potentially between £160m and £300m a year. In the 12 months to June this year, 105 prisoners took their own lives.

Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland said: “We are concerned about the impact of the problem of low staffing levels in prisons. We believe that this problem has contributed to the rising suicide rates among prisoners and needs to be addressed.

“A shortage of prison staff leads to prisoners spending longer locked in their cells, reduces access to work or education which helps with rehabilitation, living conditions are poorer and it is more difficult to access healthcare. Prisoners also struggle to contact friends and family under these circumstances.

“Staff-prisoner relationships are vital for ensuring prisoner safety and preventing prison suicides, and these relationships cannot be built when staff are so badly under resourced.”

“The rapidly rising rates of suicide, which is at its highest in 8 years since 2007, show that conditions in our prisons need improving.”

Samaritans is not the only organisation expressing concern. The House of Commons Justice Select Committee also suggest that low staffing levels contribute to overall declining prison safety including an increase of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assault incidents.

The Listener scheme can play a vital role in prisons’ safer custody agenda by helping to reduce self-harm and suicide. It also helps to create an ‘enabling culture’ whereby prisoners feel that it is okay to talk, which stops problems reaching a crisis which is more challenging to deal with.

Talking about problems can lead to a reduction in frustration and anger, build trust between prisoners and help to create a calmer, safer environment which provides a foundation upon which the prison service can work to reduce reoffending.

For further information, please contact Samaritans’ press office on 020 8394 8300/07933079176 or and download our supporting research here.

Notes to editors:

  • 95 Samaritans branches provide training and support for Listeners in 117 jails.  
  • The Listener scheme is delivered by Samaritans and the National Offender Management Service
  • It is part of safer custody in prisons and aims to reduce suicide and self-harm
  • This year is the 25th anniversary of the scheme, which began in 1991 in Swansea prison
  • Samaritans volunteers regularly go into prisons all over England and Wales and are therefore in a unique position to see the impact of reduced staffing levels.Last year Samaritans Listeners had 90,000 contacts with their fellow prisoners
  • You don’t have to be suicidal to call us. Whatever you’re going through, call us free any time from any phone on 116 123 (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill), email, or visit to find details of your nearest branch.
  • It’s the public’s kind donations and more than 21,000 trained volunteers that mean Samaritans is always there for anyone struggling to cope.  Find out how you can support us:


  1. Ministry of Justice (2016) Safety in custody statistics England and Wales update to June 2016.
  2. Estimate based on latest available data from MOJ and ONS: 1.2 per 1,000 self-inflicted deaths in custody June 2015-June 2016 compared to either the male only or all persons  England and Wales suicide rate for 2015; 95% of the prison population are male.