INMATES harmed themselves nearly 700 times while behind bars in Dorset prisons in a year, figures reveal - including 307 incidents at Portland YOI.

Prisoners at HMP Portland YOI self-harmed at least 307 times in the 12 months to September 2020 - a decrease from 361 times the year before, figures from the Ministry of Justice show.

However at least eight of these incidents were serious enough to warrant a hospital visit.

Cutting, drug overdoses and attempted hanging are among cases that must be logged as self-harm by staff at the facility, which housed around 479 people that September.

Latest figures from the MoJ show a quarterly decrease in incidents, down to 63 between July and September from 71 the three months before, with incidents across England and Wales also in decline since a record high was reported in the year to September 2019.

At HMP Verne, also on Portland, inmates harmed themselves more than 50 times in a year.

Verne inmates self-harmed at least 88 times in the 12 months to September 2020, an increase from 36 times the year before. None of these incidents were serious enough to warrant a hospital visit.

The facility, which housed around 555 people at the time of the report, shows a quarterly decrease in incidents, down to nine between July and September from 19 the three months before.

And at HMP Guys Marsh, prisoners self-harmed at least 303 times over the course of a year - a decrease from 359 times the year before.

At least 24 of these incidents were serious enough to warrant a hospital visit.

The MoJ says that the most recent figures reflect an exceptional time, given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the prison population, while experts believe prison lockdowns and enforced solitude could be contributing to mental distress behind bars.

In an effort to contain coronavirus, facilities have introduced more restrictive regimes, with visits limited or suspended and movement of prisoners restricted.

The Howard League for Penal Reform said the severity of the regimes meant tens of thousands of people had spent hours – up to 22 a day – in their cells, forced to endure solitude in “grim conditions”.

Chief executive Frances Crook said: “The mental distress caused by isolation can affect people in many different ways, some of which may not be evident for months or years.”

Prisons and Probations Minister Lucy Frazer said prison staff had put tremendous effort into keeping inmates safe but acknowledged that the increased restrictions were “extremely tough” for them.

She said that although self-harm had started to fall before the pandemic, it was important to be “more vigilant than ever about providing support in this incredibly challenging period”.

Across prisons in England and Wales, there were 58,870 incidents in the 12 months to September last year, 2,843 of which required hospital attention.

That was down by five per cent on the previous year, reflecting a seven per cent decrease at male establishments but an eight per cent increase at female prisons.

However, the latest quarterly figures show a stark 24 per cent increase for women and a five per cent increase for men.

Across England and Wales, the rate of incidents now stands at 595 per 1,000 male prisoners and 3,557 per 1,000 female.