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Prison and Jail Suicide


Suicide in correctional facilities is more prevalent than in the general population, and constitutes the leading cause of death for those in custody. There are several factors that have been found to be correlates of prison suicides, including the security of the facility, the crime committed that caused the inmate's incarceration, and the phase of imprisonment the inmate is in.

Due to the fact that many of the inmates who commit suicide have feelings of depression and hopelessness, have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, or have expressed suicidal thoughts or behaviours in the past, efforts at adequate intervention and treatment need to be improved. Researchers have devised theoretical profiles of "typical" inmate suicidal behaviour, but a profile alone is unable to provide corrections staff with a reliable method of distinguishing between suicidal and non-suicidal inmates. The communication and reporting of information needs to be improved, to allow for a more accurate picture of the effects of personal characteristics and of the institution on suicidal behaviours.

Risk factors exist that enhance suicidal intentions, and these factors are related to the circumstances of imprisonment or to the personal history of the inmate. Some examples of these factors include one's view of incarceration, the effects of incarceration, the conditions in the correctional facility, one's history, current family or life situation, the circumstances surrounding one's incarceration, or one's race.

Primary prevention efforts and secondary prevention efforts are both ways that correctional facilities have tried to reduce the rate of suicide. Correctional Service of Canada has also created a plan to combat suicides, entitled "The National Strategy for the Prevention of Suicide and Reduction of Self-Injury." Even though efforts are made to reduce the suicide rate in prisons, the task of suicide prevention remains a low priority for correctional institutions.

Correctional settings also try to come up with intervention programs. The key to intervention programs lies in the accurate communication of relevant information regarding the past or recent behaviour of suicidal inmates. The individual facts of each case suggests which method of intervention is most appropriate for the individual inmate.

Suicide treatment programs have been ineffective because they are based on the view that suicide is strictly a problem for doctors and medication to solve, but it is being recognized that greater significance needs to be given to the environment, and to the importance of providing activities to relieve stress. The issue of suicide must be recognized as a joint responsibility between staff, medical and psychiatric personnel, family and friends, and other inmates. Few jails and prisons have so far succeeded in consistently and effectively detecting and intervening in incidents of inmate suicidal behaviour.

While there is more that can be done, the fact is that prison and jail are brutally harsh environments that some simply are not able to cope with. After we have done all the prevention and intervention possible with the environmental constraints, will we then step back and look at prison itself? Perhaps the solution to inmate suicide lies in more discriminate and appropriate use of incarceration, keeping less serious offenders in the community and making better use of mental health facilities for inmates with mental health concerns.

..For the remainder of this paper: by The John Howard Society of Alberta

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