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More nurses needed in prisons to help prevent avoidable deaths – briefing paper

RCN and independent panel say nurses should come from many specialisms
Nurse dispensing drugs on psychiatric wing of UK Prison

RCN and independent panel say nurses should come from many specialisms

More registered nurses are needed in prisons to help avoid natural deaths in custody where possible, according to a new briefing paper.

The RCN and the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC) found that the average age of someone dying in prison of natural causes is 56, compared with 81 in the general population.

Their briefing paper also reveals that between June 2008 and June 2009 there were 103 natural deaths in prison custody, but this figure had increased to 165 between June 2018 to June 2019.

The paper covers prisons in England and Wales, and examines age

RCN and independent panel say nurses should come from many specialisms


Nurse dispensing drugs on a prison psychiatric wing. Picture: Alamy

More registered nurses are needed in prisons to help avoid natural deaths in custody where possible, according to a new briefing paper. 

The RCN and the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC) found that the average age of someone dying in prison of natural causes is 56, compared with 81 in the general population.

Their briefing paper also reveals that between June 2008 and June 2009 there were 103 natural deaths in prison custody, but this figure had increased to 165 between June 2018 to June 2019. 

The paper covers prisons in England and Wales, and examines age groups from 15 years up to 85 years and above.

Wide range of healthcare services needed for prisoners

To help avoid natural deaths in prison where possible, the RCN and IAPDC recommends providing specialist services for prisoners with long-term conditions such as cancer or dementia.

They add that these services will need an appropriate workforce, including an increased supply of registered nurses.

Prison nurses should cover specialisms ‘such as mental health or learning disabilities’


Ann Norman

RCN professional lead for criminal justice Ann Norman said: ‘It is extremely difficult to quantify the exact number of nursing staff required without first examining the specific needs of each prison.

‘Nursing staff must be chosen from a range of specialisms, such as mental health or learning disabilities, to ensure they meet the requirements of individual prisons.’

 However, Ms Norman added that, as well as recruiting new nursing staff, there must be support for those who already work in the setting.

    Further advice on preventing natural deaths in custody

     Other RCN and IAPDC recommendations to help avoid natural deaths in prison include:

    • Reassessing the policy on do not resuscitate decisions and their use within the prison healthcare system.
    • Making sure prisoners can attend all medical appointments in the community by ensuring an escort is available.
    • Developing a joint health and justice older persons’ strategy for the criminal justice system.

    Government declines to comment on nurse numbers

    Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: ‘An ageing prison population poses particular challenges and we are developing a strategy that specifically addresses the needs of this group.’

    However, when Nursing Standard asked for a response regarding the call to increase the number of registered nurses, the Department of Health and Social Care did not respond.  


    Read the RCN and IAPDC briefing paper

    Avoidable natural deaths in prison custody: putting things right


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