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Prison And Suicides

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009 Prison And Suicides

There has been a fall in the number of suicides in British prisons. Whilst that is good and welcome news there is a flip side to the coin. In Britain it has been argued that whilst we still continue to jail mentally ill people, the problem will be remain according to Erwin James of the Guardian (16 01 09).

According to Shahid Malik, the justice minister who states, “There is never any room for complacency in our work to prevent these deaths,” this is a direct response to the fall in their number of prisoners taking their own lives in 2008.

Notably, the statistics are as follows: the drop from an average of 91 self-inflicted deaths per year over the previous three years to just 61 last year. Hitherto 8 women took their own lives in prison in 2007, and only one female took her life whilst in custody last year.

It as been suggested that staff vigilance has had a major part to play. In addition it is worthy of noting that prison staff get very little praise from the press. It is also easy to forget that a significant number of prison officers who do their jobs for the right reasons and who specifically care for those vulnerable people they have to supervise. Prisons have also seen an increase in their voluntary staff, particularly the Samaritans.

It was after the very sad death of a 15 year old boy Philip Knight who hanged himself in his cell that the Samaritans got a foothold into our prisons 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.

As a result of the schemes success, it was rolled out throughout the countries prison system, thus 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.

However, fundamentally there are still to many deaths. The fact that 61 people are dead within 1 year is an indicment on how we prisons are run.

Notably, it has been established that the male suicide rate in prison is five times higher than for men in the community. Females 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).

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

Finally, it could be argued that 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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