The rise in prison suicides is not surprising – even overcrowded jails can be lonely places
The shocking rise in suicides and acts of self-harm in UK prisons will come as no surprise to anyone who has first-hand experience of imprisonment – either as an inmate or as a member of staff.
By the end of March, a total of 113 prisoners had killed themselves over the previous 12-month period (compared to 102 a year earlier).
en of those who died were women, and almost all will have died alone in a tiny concrete cell.
But why are more and more prisoners taking their own lives in UK jails?
And why are thousands of others making an attempt or deciding to injure themselves so severely that they require medical treatment, often in hospital?
Why do prisoners commit suicide?
In the cases of most of those who leave their cells in a body bag, suicide is the final tragic act in a ruined life.
True, most of those who died will have committed crimes and left behind victims – although some may themselves have been wrongfully convicted – but a shockingly high number of inmates who kill themselves are actually serving short sentences for relatively minor, non-violent offences.
Poor mental health, chronic physical ailments that mean a life of constant pain, the legacy of horrendous childhoods (in many cases dominated by the most disgusting forms of child abuse imaginable), the unbearable misery of family disintegrations or the deaths of loved ones can all play their parts in an individual’s decision to resolve their personal crises by dying.
And these deaths in custody can leave very long shadows, for surviving family members, fellow prisoners and prison staff (who are often the ones who actually discover the bodies).
How the UK prison system is failing prisoners
One of the characteristics of overcrowded and understaffed jails in the UK is that many front-line prison officers say that they no longer have time to get to know individual prisoners in their care.
In theory, every prison is supposed to operate what is known as a ‘personal officer’ system where every inmate has a specific member of staff on their wing or house block to whom they can turn in times of trouble or crisis.
However, in practice, staff are moved between locations (and even prisons), so personal contact – including just having time to talk – is kept to a minimum.
With many prisoners now spending up to 22 or 23 hours each day locked in their cells, it’s hardly surprising that, despite some prisons being dangerously overcrowded, being incarcerated has become a very lonely experience.
After months or years in such conditions, it is unsurprising that a minority feel their lives are no longer worth living.
For those already experiencing poor mental health, a prison term can make their conditions much worse. In some cases, it proves to be a death sentence.
During the two years that I spent as a prisoner in six different jails, I will admit that I never moved into a new cell without making a mental list of all the potential ligature points: top rail of a metal bunk bed, a high window with bars, a metal water pipe etc.
And I have never suffered from depression or felt myself to be suicidal.
For me, the knowledge that I could – if I so chose – ‘escape’ if life behind bars ever became unbearable was actually quite comforting.
Other deaths in prisons
Of course, not all deaths in prison systems are suicides.
In the year ending March 2017, a total of 344 prisoners died behind bars (including the 113 self-inflicted deaths).
Most of these deaths were due to natural causes – including poorly diagnosed or treated illnesses – and many inmates simply died of old age.
Elderly people have become a feature of UK jails.
In part, it’s due to longer sentences, including many more life terms, and partly because more people are being convicted of so-called historical sexual offences that may have been committed decades earlier.
The oldest inmate in England and Wales is currently aged over 101.
Self-harming in prisons is on the rise too
The latest Ministry of Justice figures also reveal that more and more prisoners are self-harming.
In 2016, the total number of incidents was over 40,000 (up 24% compared to 32,300 the previous year).
Of these, 2,740 cases were serious enough to require emergency hospital treatment.
The most common form of self-harm in prisons tend to be scratching or cutting with nails, razor blades or other sharp objects.
A high number of prisoners, especially those serving long sentences or life terms, are severely scarred following multiple incidents over a period of years.
But prisoners, like people who are outside in the community, self-harm for a wide variety of reasons.
For some, it is part of their coping mechanism and relatively minor acts of self-injury can relieve tension.
Others say that it makes them feel more alive or back in control of the only thing they have left: their own bodies.