A NORTH-East prison had the joint highest number of inmate suicides in the country last year as new figures show there has been a national surge in self-inflicted deaths in custody.

Four suicides were reported at Durham Prison in 2018/19, contributing to a 23 per cent in rise in self-inflicted deaths at jails across England and Wales.

The report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman comes a week after it published its fifth report this year into the self-inflicted deaths of five men at Durham Prison.

In the most recent report, the watchdog criticised staff for failing to asses the suicide risks of 44-year-old Raymond Mulligan, who died five days after being recalled to prison in March 2018.

Ombudsman Sue McAllister raised concerns that he had been assessed as posing a low risk to himself, despite having recently taken an overdose and having expressed suicidal thoughts.

She said: "“In the three days before he died, Mr Mulligan gave no indication that he was at imminent risk of taking his own life.

"However, we are concerned that staff seem to have relied too much on Mr Mulligan’s assertions that he did not intend to kill himself rather than balancing this against all his risk factors, including his diagnosis of depression, his previous and recent history of self-harm, the breakdown of his relationship and the fact that he was only a few days into his recall.”

Previous reports published this year into the deaths of prisoners James Turnbull, Scott Page, John Mayhew and John Collins have all raised various concerns including the emergency response to incidents, reception staff not properly considering the risk of suicide, and inmates not being monitored using suicide and self-harm prevention procedures.

The ombudsman's annual report said 91 inmates killed themselves in 2018/19, while 334 people died in prison.

It also raised concerns about the availability of drugs in prisons.

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: “Any self-inflicted death is a tragedy, which is why we have trained more than 25,000 staff in suicide and self-harm prevention and assigned each inmate a dedicated keyworker for support.

“We are also spending £100m on improved security measures to stop drugs which fuel violence and self-harm, improving support during the often difficult first few days in custody, investing £2.5 billion in modern prison places which support effective rehabilitation and have recruited almost 4,400 more staff in the last three years.”

At Frankland and Low Newton prisons, both in Durham, there was one death, of natural causes. Holme House, in Stockton, had five deaths, non of which were self-inflicted.