Death on probation: a silent scandal


An unacceptable number of people are dying under probation supervision in England and Wales. New research by Loraine Gelsthorpe, Nicola Padfield and Jake Phillips for the Howard League for Penal Reform uncovers the facts and asks what can be done to try to prevent future deaths.

Data on deaths in custody have been available for many years. These deaths have a huge impact on the prison, on the prisoner’s family, on other prisoners, and on wing and governing staff. Despite what is often seen as a ‘managerial’ ethos and a concomitant ‘tick box’ approach to achieving targets, the death of someone in custody is still recognised as a human and management tragedy. In contrast, deaths in the community — under supervision or licence — have been paid less attention. The original data were collected from probation areas by the Ministry of Justice. The data has been made public thanks to Freedom of Information applications by the Howard League and ourselves.

Our analysis counted a total of 2,275 deaths of men and 275 deaths of women under probation supervision in England and Wales across each of the financial years for which data was requested (2006—10). A high proportion of the deaths related to natural causes (over 25 per cent in each year), but — suicide (not less than 13 per cent), alcohol issues (8 per cent in each year for which there are figures), unlawful killing (5 per cent), and misadventure/accident (not less than 8 per cent) also featured in significant proportion.

We detected a tone of defensiveness in some comments by probation staff on the recording forms. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some workers may see the forms as an opportunity to protect themselves from criticism, rather than as risk-assessment tools. Such defensiveness may be unsurprising in a context of funding constraints and media criticism — arguably what is needed is information from probation that will enhance our understanding of deaths under supervision and help drive improvements in practice.

There may be more productive ways of collecting the data. It is clear from the forms we received that the information captured represented only part of what occurs prior to and following a death under supervision. Discussion with officers, managers and policy makers could reveal useful information about deaths under probation supervision and how the number of deaths might be reduced. Further statistical analysis of deaths under supervision might highlight where and when people are most vulnerable. It would also put deaths in the community on a par (in terms of attention, and thus perceived importance) with deaths in custody. There can be no justification for considering deaths in custody as more ‘important’ than those under supervision. Many of these deaths may be preventable.

We hope our work will provoke critical thinking and raise awareness and concern about policy and practice regarding some of the most vulnerable people in the country.  Much greater care in the community is needed for vulnerable people leaving prison on licence or under probation supervision. Indeed, one of the key recommendations of the research is for ‘an ethics of care’, meeting the needs of others for whom we take responsibility as a state. This means reflecting hard on whether or not things might be done differently to prevent deaths under supervision and creating policy and practice to give greater priority to the issue.  

When the court curtails a person’s freedom it hands over to the organs of the state some responsibility for safeguarding an individual. Probation supervision for those on licence and community sentences under Probation Trusts is increasingly intrusive and controlling (as directed by government). This must bring with it an increased duty of care.

As the Coalition Government moves towards a payment-by-results system for community interventions, ‘results’ should not just concern whether someone reoffends or not. The system must also make sure each person is safe, secure, healthy and, where appropriate, ready to re-enter their community. Many of the deaths recorded were of people on licence from prison and demonstrate that much more has to be done to ‘join-up’ the custodial and non-custodial part of sentences of imprisonment.

The Coalition Government’s ‘big society’ initiative has been interpreted and promoted as an opportunity to give local people and communities more power. Could there not be a further shift in the direction of an ‘ethics of care’ to facilitate the development of caring relations? Of course, there are complexities here, not least concerning the relationship between ‘care’ and ‘justice’; but in civil society without which the liberal institutions of justice cannot function we should presume a background of some degree of caring relations.

We urge a return to the core values of what it means to supervise people who have committed crime: making bureaucracy less of a priority and making looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our society the number one objective. This means not just helping people to turn their backs on lives of crime, but also addressing their welfare needs and giving them some hope for the future.

The report, Deaths on probation: An analysis of data regarding people dying under probation supervision, can be downloaded here.