Impact News

Responding to Violence, Suicide, Psychosis and Trauma

The truth behind prison suicides

A fall last year in the number of prisoners taking their own lives is good news, but while we continue to jail mentally ill people the problem will continue, says Erwin James

A young prisoner at Ashield young offenders’ institution.

‘Sixty-one suicides in a year is as unacceptable as 100’, says Erwin James.

“There is never any room for complacency in our work to prevent these deaths,” said justice minister Shahid Malik in response to the fall in the number of people in prison taking their own lives in 2008. The drop from an average of 91 self-inflicted deaths per year over the previous three years to just 61 last year is noteworthy. (In 2007 eight women took their lives in prisons; only one woman took her life in custody last year.)

Staff vigilance has to be one reason for the lower figure. Prison staff rarely receive good press and it is easy to forget the significant number of prison officers who actually enjoy their job for the right reasons, and who care about the vulnerable people they have to supervise. Another reason has to be the army of volunteers who give their time to those who are struggling with their prison situation, particularly the Samaritans.

The Samaritans managed to get a foothold into our prisons after 15-year-old Philip Knight hanged himself in his cell in Swansea prison in 1990. Kathy Biggar, former vice-chairwoman of the “Sams”, and Jim Heyes, the then governor of Swansea jail, came up with the idea of the Listener scheme, whereby groups of prisoners are trained by the Samaritans to provide listening ears for fellow prisoners in distress.

The scheme was so successful that it was expanded throughout the prison system, so that today one key performance indicator (KPI) in every prison in the country is the provision and quality of its Listener scheme. Most prisons now get at least one visit a month from their local Samaritans who give on going support and training to the Listeners and to prison staff if requested. The relationship that has developed between the Samaritans and our prisons is one of the best social initiatives to have emerged over the past 15 years.

So a bit of good news for the prison service at last. But 61 people dead in a year in our prisons by their own hands is as unacceptable as 100. And let’s bear in mind this figure will have little impact on the overall statistics regarding the likelihood of self-inflicted deaths in prison unless it can be sustained for a few years. The suicide rate for men in prison is five times higher than for men in the community. Women in prison are 36 times more likely to take their own lives than women in the community. And a study published in 2003 found that 72% of those who took their own lives in prison had a history of mental disorder (over half had symptoms suggestive of mental disorder at reception into prison).

Four years ago the then minister for prisons, Paul Goggins, reported in a debate that 20% of all prisoners in the UK had four of the five major mental health disorders.

I used to think that suicide in prison was the ultimate means of empowerment. Prison engenders intense feelings of helplessness. Living with limited choices, little control or responsibility, and shouldering the opprobrium of society can make you feel backed into a corner. In those circumstances, it might not seem to be a totally irrational act. Most people who go to prison contemplate suicide, even if only fleetingly. The evidence shows however that the majority of people who carry it through are mentally unwell. Mr Malik made no mention of that fact. The reality is that the only way to sustain a relatively low prison suicide rate is to address our complacency about jailing mentally ill people.

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