The Silent Struggles Behind Bars: Suicide

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
October 10, 2023

When we think about and discuss the challenges faced within prison systems, thoughts often gravitate towards the physical aspects – the restrictions of freedom, the cells, the tensions between inmates. However, a deeper and darker struggle exists, one that often remains hidden from the public eye, the issue of suicide in prisons. This article will shed some light on the complex reality of suicide within prisons, revealing the pain, despair and the desperate need for change. The reasons behind suicide in prisons are complex and varied. The harsh conditions, separation from loved ones and lack of access to proper mental health resources, contribute significantly to the decline of mental health, and ultimately becomes a breeding ground for mental health issues.

Suicide in prisons is a crisis that demands attention, it is a silent epidemic. Within the seemingly impenetrable walls of prisons, individuals’ emotional turmoil is taking hold. The numbers highlight the urgency of the issue. Suicide rates in prison populations are significantly higher than they are in the general population.

  1. People in prison are much more likely to die by suicide than people living in the general population
  2. In England and Wales between 2008 & 2019, there were 677 deaths by suicide in male and female prisons. Men accounted for 97% of these suicides
  3. After release from prison, men are 8 times more likely to commit suicide in the first year compared to those in the community. Women are 36 times more likely
  4. The majority of prisoners who took their own lives while in prison were on care plans known as ACCT (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork)

Unfortunately, mental health support in many prisons falls dramatically short of what is required. Inadequate funding, limited staff training and the stigma surrounding mental health, especially men’s mental health, all play a role in depriving inmates of the help they really need. The vicious cycle of untreated mental health conditions often leads to tragic outcomes such as suicide. Prisoners are often vulnerable people, so it is the vulnerable among the vulnerable. Certain groups within the prison population are at an increased risk of suicide. Young inmates, those with a history of mental health issues and those facing lengthy sentences are particularly vulnerable. For these individuals in the high-risk categories, the already daunting prospect of being imprisoned can be heightened by overwhelming feelings of despair.

Addressing the issue of suicide in prisons requires a varied approach. Adequate mental health, resources and support systems need to be made available to inmates. In a perfect world, this would include regular access to trained counsellors, proper mental health screening upon entry, and thorough follow-up care throughout imprisonment. Prison staff also play a vital role in suicide prevention. Training programs that raise awareness about the signs of mental health issues and equip staff of the tools needed to respond effectively can make a substantial difference. Creating a culture of empathy and support within prisons is paramount to curb the disturbing rates of mental health crises and suicides.

As we contemplate the harsh reality of suicide within prisons, it becomes apparent that the issue is not confined to prisoners, it is a human crisis that demands a human response, via compassion, attention and action, like we see for those outside of prison. The lives of prisoner’s matter, and it is a collective responsibility to work towards prison systems that don’t just seek to punish, but also rehabilitate, uplift and provide the support necessary to prevent these tragic losses caused by suicide. The impact of a suicide in prison is just as profound for the family, prison staff and other prisoners. In the UK in 2022, a new talking therapy for men in prison who struggle with suicidal ideation was launched. By acknowledging the silent struggles within prisons, we take a significant step towards more just and rehumanised prison systems.

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