I was delighted and most grateful to receive the 2022 European Society of Criminology Young Criminologist Award in the beautiful, sunny city of Malaga. This was a real highlight following the long pandemic pressures and isolation that we have all experienced. I am most grateful to the award panel and the Society, along with Professor Mary Bosworth and Dr Cathie Traynor who kindly helped me to develop the article before publication. My award-winning article fuses my core research interests: prisoner deaths, prison regulation/oversight (seeking to steer imprisonment rates and conditions) and the regulatory functions of voluntary organisations/NGOs. It can be read here:
Tomczak P (2022) Reconceptualizing multisectoral prison regulation: Voluntary organizations and bereaved families as regulators. Theoretical Criminology, 26(3): 494-514.
I am particularly passionate about stimulating further scholarly and practical attention to prisoner deaths and prisoner death investigations around the world. This article forms a ‘call to arms’, seeking to stimulate pan-European (and beyond!) scholarly attention to these long-overlooked yet vital topics that are, too frequently, a central part of the experience of imprisonment.
Since 2015 when I started studying prisoner death investigations, I have become increasingly concerned about the numbers of prisoners who die year on year around the world– despite being almost totally dependent on the state whilst imprisoned. The UN estimate that prisoner mortality rates are up to 50% above those in non-imprisoned populations, yet there is a real lack of scholarship on prisoner deaths, a topic which should be of central concern for criminologists. We simply do not know how many prisoners die each year globally. Available data are likely substantial underestimates due to undercounting and tendencies to count only deaths occurring physically within prisons. Nor do we fully understand how this issue disproportionately affects prisoners marginalized in terms of e.g. race, gender, disability, foreign national status or pretrial detention (Tomczak and Mulgrew, 2022).
Each prisoner death is problematic in its own terms, but the effects extend far beyond those individual bereavements. Prison deaths can cause (enduring) harm across stakeholder groups including prisoners, bereaved families, prison staff and death investigators, and negatively affect staff wellbeing, staff absence and prison regimes. Prisoner suicides can also lead to further deaths through a phenomenon known as ‘clustering’, potentially compounding the harms, costs and risks of each individual death. ‘Clustering’ can occur due to changes in prisoner behaviour, prison regime disruptions and changes in staff practice, including increased fear and risk aversion after each death (Tomczak, 2022). As I highlight in the award-winning article, unsafe prisons not only imperil the health and well-being of prisoners and staff, but also reduce safety outside.
Prisoner health and prison social climates are positively correlated with reoffending rates and prison health is public health (see Tomczak, 2021). Each year, reoffending in England and Wales costs more than £18.1 billion, while creating new harms daily, such as trauma and absence from work (Newton et al, 2019). Link et al (2019) explore how poorer prisoner mental and physical health correlate with higher reoffending rates by influencing employment, family contact, financial problems and crime. Auty and Liebling (2020) demonstrate that higher moral, relational and organisational quality of prison life supports better outcomes for prisoners upon release. Globally, around 30 million people are released from custody annually, so prisons are a vector for (community) transmission of infectious diseases, which disproportionately impact marginalised communities (Kinner et al, 2020).
I have extensively studied the series of investigations that follow prisoner deaths in England and Wales, which are almost always undertaken by the police, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and Coroner. Although prisoner death investigations are mandatory under international law, and are almost always undertaken by multiple bodies, the only account of the full investigation process that I have come across is my own, which is obviously geographically limited and also forms my earliest work on this issue (Tomczak, 2018).
Whilst I will continue to study prisoner deaths and death investigations myself and with my research team, that is insufficient for the scale of this universal issue. I am open to collaborate on comparative studies or studies from other jurisdictions. Moreover, I have provided an introduction to this vital issue and some references to my own publications that I urge you to disseminate to other interested scholars and students. I would be more than happy to assist studies in other jurisdictions if I can be useful and can be contacted at Philippa.firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilippaTomczak.
Philippa Tomczak is Principal Research Fellow and Director of the prisonHEALTH Research Group, University of Nottingham, UK
Auty KM, Liebling A (2020) Exploring the relationship between prison social climate and reoffending. Justice Quarterly37(2): 358–381. https://doi.org/10.1080/07418825.2018.1538421
Kinner SA, Young JT, Snow K, et al. (2020) Prisons and custodial settings are part of a comprehensive response to COVID-19. The Lancet Public Health 5(4): e188–e189. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30058-X
Link NW, Ward JT, Stansfield R (2019) Consequences of mental and physical health for reentry and recidivism. Criminology 57(3): 544–573. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9125.12213
Newton A, May X, Eames S, et al. (2019) Economic and social costs of reoffending. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/814650/economic-social-costs-reoffending.pdf
Tomczak P (2022) Highlighting “risky remands” through prisoner death investigations: people with very severe mental illness transitioning from police and court custody into prison on remand. Frontiers in Psychiatry – Forensic Psychiatry, 13: Article no. 862365. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.862365
Tomczak P (2022) Reconceptualizing multisectoral prison regulation: Voluntary organizations and bereaved families as regulators. Theoretical Criminology, 26(3), 494-514. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362480621989264
Tomczak P (2018) Prison suicide: what happens afterwards? Bristol: University of Bristol Press.
Tomczak P and Mulgrew R (2022) Making prisoner deaths visible: Towards a new epistemological approach. Preprint DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.36095.07844.