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Some deaths in custody could be averted if the Prison Service had access to the Police National Computer, an independent forum has said.

The Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody says it wants a more joined-up approach between the Prison Service and police to reduce the number of deaths in custody from non-natural causes.

Publishing its first annual report, the forum has found that around 600 people die each year in custody. Although many of these deaths are through natural causes, some follow as a result of apparent suicide attempts and some from other non-natural causes. The forum believes that some of these deaths could and should have been prevented.

One practice that could help avert unnecessary deaths is improved communication between the Prison Service and police. The forum says if prison staff had access to the Police National Computer (PNC) they would be able to make better risk assessments.

"By allowing the Prison Service to enter data, the police would also be more aware of safety issues when the person concerned is next dealt with by police officers", says the report.

But differences have surfaced between the two bodies as to how and when this should happen.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice refused to elaborate on these differences, but said the vast amount of sensitive data on the PNC meant that widening access to a tool that was "for the police, by the police" raised a number of issues.

She told GC News: "Dialogue is ongoing between the Prison Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers on how to improve data sharing between the police and prison services, while protecting the security of the sensitive information held."

The Prison Service currently has read-only access to limited data held on the PNC database to assist with risk assessments of individuals. An interim solution is in place for individual prisons to inform their local PNC bureau by phone or fax of any prisoner at risk of self-harm.

Forum chair John Wadham told GC News: "We believe that there are many advantages to the Prison Service having access to, and being able to add information onto, the PNC.

"We understand that there are cost implications and issues of data protection to be taken into account but, in our view, shared access to PNC could help the two organisations to communicate crucial information about an individual's risks and vulnerabilities. We will therefore continue to focus on bringing together police and Prison Service representatives to take this forward."

The work of the forum includes deaths of people in prison, police stations, immigration detention and secure mental hospitals. It also covers those who have been released from custody and are under supervision of the National Probation Service.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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