Prisoner suicides are back on the rise, a government watchdog warned today after the highest rate of deaths in custody in nearly a decade.
Nearly 230 people died in prisons, immigration detention centres and probation facilities across Britain last year, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman reported - the highest death toll since it began monitoring in 2004.
Of these, 71 deaths were self-inflicted - a rise in levels not seen since 2008 - including the deaths of three children in custody, the first in more than three years.
Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen said the majority of deaths in custody were from natural causes, reflecting both longer sentences and "significant health deficits" among the prison population.
But the rise in suicides was "particularly worrying."
The Criminal Justice Alliance's Vicki Helyar-Cardwell called the news "hugely saddening and troubling," blaming overcrowding for the epidemic.
The alliance had already warned of dangerous levels of overcrowding undermining prisoners' well-being and opportunities for rehabilitation, she said.
"Today's report by the ombudsman reminds us that prison is a wholly unsuitable environment for many people warehoused there - many of whom have complex needs, mental health problems and addictions and who have often been victims of crimes themselves.
"We need to re-evaluate our current overuse of prison and find safer solutions in the community where appropriate," she said.
A Prison Officers Association spokesman said officers were frustrated and often lacked support in dealing with at-risk prisoners.
There was little that could stop someone "hell-bent" on taking their own life.
But the government and the National Offender Management Service's policy was "to save money, not lives.
"They've got a policy of closing prisons and yet prisons are constantly overcrowded.
"Instead of closing prisons, we should be looking at reducing the number of prisoners," he said.
The report comes barely a fortnight after the Prison Reform Trust released figures showing 77 of England and Wales's 131 prisons in July were over and above the Prison Service's own normal accommodation limits - in some cases nearly double the authorised amount.
All in all more than 7,000 people were in the system than the service could currently handle, the trust said.
Around 86,553 people were behind bars across England and Wales this week, according to official figures - around 5,000 below the service's "useable operational capacity."
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