Prisoner calls to Samaritans helpline increased by 60% during pandemic

Calls to the charity’s dedicated prison line rose from 266,076 in 2019 to 424,509 in 2021, according to data obtained by the PA news agency.

25 March 2022

The number of distress calls made by prisoners to a mental health helpline has soared by 60% in just two years, new figures have revealed.

Data obtained by the PA news agency under freedom of information (FOI) laws shows that calls to Samaritans’ dedicated prison line rose from 266,076 in 2019 to 329,799 in 2020, and again to 424,509 in 2021.

Labour’s shadow mental health minister Rosena Allin-Khan said the statistics made for “alarming reading” while the charity Mind called the increase “concerning”.

PA asked the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to state the number of calls made to Samaritans by prison inmates in England and Wales in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The data showed the total rose by 24% between 2019 and 2020, and by 29% between 2020 and 2021.

Overall, from 2019 to 2021, the figure soared by 60%.

Dr Allin-Khan said the Government needs to “act fast” to “get a grip” on the mental health crisis.

“These figures make for alarming reading – it is yet another example of even more people seeking help for mental health problems during the course of the last couple of years,” she told PA.

“Being imprisoned can exacerbate mental health difficulties and it is well known that for many minority groups, prison is the first place they will be diagnosed with a pre-existing mental health condition.

“The Government needs to act fast to get a grip on the growing mental health crisis. Only a Labour government will ensure the security of mental health treatment within a month, for all who need it.”

Rosena Allin-Khan
Rosena Allin-Khan said the statistics made for ‘alarming reading’ (Jane Barlow/PA)

Sophie Corlett, director of external relations at Mind, called for a “significant increase in mental health support for people in prison”.

“People in prison experience mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety or self-harm, at a much higher rate than society in general and it’s concerning to hear the huge increase in people who have needed to phone the Samaritans during the pandemic,” she said.

“We know the pandemic has had a huge impact on many of us, causing increased isolation and loneliness, and this has been even worse for those in prison where already mental health support is in short supply.

“For anyone experiencing deteriorating mental health, prison is a completely inappropriate setting. We need to see a significant increase in mental health support for people in prison.”

Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Wera Hobhouse called the statistics “deeply worrying” and accused Justice Secretary Dominic Raab of “failing on all accounts at the moment”.

Dominic Raab
The Lib Dems accused Justice Secretary Dominic Raab of ‘failing on all accounts at the moment’ (Joe Giddens/PA)

“These figures are deeply worrying and work is urgently needed to help prisoners recover from mental health issues,” she said.

“Dominic Raab is failing on all accounts at the moment, with victims taking too long to see justice carried out and now these new concerns over prisoner welfare.

“Prisoners need more face-to-face time with mental health professionals and voluntary services. An urgent review must also be carried out on the potential long-term effects Covid restrictions have had on prisoners.

“A failure to act could lead to tragedies in our prisoners and hinder hopes of rehabilitation.”

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said in its response to PA’s FOI request that the number of calls to the helpline increased during the Covid-19 crisis.

It pointed out there have been regime restrictions, meaning increased time in cells and less opportunity to interact with staff and other prisoners.

There has also been more restricted access to Listeners, a scheme in which Samaritans train selected prisoners to provide emotional support for fellow inmates in distress, the MoJ said.

It added that where Listeners cannot be made available, prison staff promote the telephone helpline as an alternative and that has brought increased demand for the service.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “While our decisive action during the pandemic saved thousands of lives, restricted regimes and the curtailment of family visits were challenging for some prisoners.

“We moved quickly to roll out family video calls to all prisons and the Samaritans provided vital additional support.

The Ministry of Justice said the number of calls to the Samaritans prison helpline increased during the Covid-19 crisis (Michael Cooper/PA)

“We continue to improve mental health support – with more than 25,000 staff trained in suicide and self-harm prevention so far.”

The MoJ also noted in its FOI response that Samaritans’ dedicated prison helpline is accessible from any telephone, not just those in prisons, so some calls may have been made by offenders after their release.

Prisoners may have called other Samaritans services instead of the dedicated line – and these would not have been included in the figures, it added.

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