The pains of imprisonment

Dr David Scott writes about how the inherent harms of imprisonment generate prisoner deaths.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of imprisonment today is the tragically high number of self-inflicted deaths [SIDs].  At 120 SIDs per 100,000 people, prisoners are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than those living in the wider community.  In November 2016 the one hundredth (100) prisoner killed themselves this calendar year.

One prisoner takes their own life every 3 days in prisons in England and Wales.  The official data also indicates that a prisoner attempts to kill themselves every 5 hours and that a prisoner is recorded as self-harming every 20 minutes. 306 people had died in prison in England and Wales by November 2016 (an average of nearly one person a day).

A history of death

The officially recorded figure indicates that self-inflicted deaths in prison have risen substantially for the last four decades.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded ‘suicides’ in prison. This number leapt in 1987 to 46 recorded suicides and 80 people took their own lives in prisons in England and Wales in 1998.

The highest number of prisoner SIDs prior to this year was in 2004, when 96 prisoner SIDs were recorded for that year.  Yet though less people died, because of a lower prisoner population, the ratio of death was actually higher in 2004 127.2 per 100,000 prisoners than that of 2016.

Alongside the sheer number of SIDs, in recent days concern has quite rightly focused on the clustering of six SID’s at HMP Woodhill, a high security male prison in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.  Yet sadly this is not an aberration.

Cluster deaths have plagued prisons for years.    For example, in recent decades large numbers of self-inflicted deaths in the space of a few months have been recorded at Risley Remand Centre (1987-89); HMP Armley (1988-1989); Feltham YOU (1991-1992); HMP Styal (2002-2003); HMP Durham H Wing (2002-2005); and HMP Whitemoor (2006-2007).   If we look back in prison history in England and Wales we can find other similar examples.

Individual pathologies?

One of the main reason proposed for the high number of deaths is prisoner mental health problems. The suicidal prisoner is considered to suffer from fear, depression, despondency and hopelessness and a general inability to adapt to prison life. They simply do not have the personal resources to cope with the deprivations of imprisonment.

Whilst this argument around mental ill-health is clearly of great significance, as an explanation of the actual deaths of prisoners it has proved remarkably limited. The problem is that even if a person who takes their life has mental health problems this alone cannot tell us why they took their life at that specific time. Whilst many people in prison do have mental health problems, those who commit ‘suicide’ are less likely to have a psychiatric history than those on the outside who take their own lives.

Exceptionally high levels of prisoners, about 43,000 people in prison at any one time, have had suicidal ideation (i.e. thoughts about taking own life) at some point in their life.   There has also been a systematic failure of identification by the Prison Service of those who are likely to attempt to take their own lives.  Under the current Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork [ACCT] policy only 1 in 4 prisoners who successfully end their lives are identified as a risk of ‘suicide’.

The pains of imprisonment

Dividing prisoners between ‘copers’ and ‘non-copers’ provides only false assumptions about who may be ‘suicide prone’. Most prisoners only just about cope.  The real pains of imprisonment are not to be found in the given quality of living conditions, relationships with staff or levels of crowding, but in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away.

Deaths in prison should not be considered as aberrations or malfunctions of the system but rather located in the daily processes of imprisonment itself. Coping and non-coping with prison life are matters of degree that fluctuate over time and all prisoners are vulnerable to suicidal ideation.

In response to the news of record number of deaths in prison what is required are interventions directed at helping people vulnerable to suicidal ideation develop new meanings and alternative strategies that can help them take their lives forward. Central is the nurturing of hope. The prison, characterised by loneliness, isolation and despair, is the very last place where we should attempt to do this.

Dr David Scott, Open University. His most recent book is Emancipatory Politics and Praxis (2016, EG Press)

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