Prison Suicide Among Inmates
Suicide is a leading cause of death among inmates. When prisoners take their life in prison cells, it brings to light the dark truth that takes place behind bars. Reports from the justice ministry in the past five years confirm that the number of self-inflicted prisoner deaths is a source of concern for the penal system. In 2011, suicide in state and federal prisons made up about 5% of all deaths in the correctional facilities (Lurigio & Harris, 2016). This type of statistics proves that the correctional system is at fault of mishandling some of the prisoners. Suicide may be a phenomenon that is hard to predict, but studies reveal that risk factors can be used to prevent self-inflicted deaths, especially among prisoners in solitary confinement. These factors include mental distress and acute emotional distress. Surprisingly, this is one of the areas where the penal system has failed. The failure of the correctional system is epitomized by the incredible conditions endured by prisoners suffering from mental illnesses. Such prisoners require special attention in the system but have to go through cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment that predisposes them to the risk of death by suicide. From this predicament, prison suicides have continuously been cited as being significantly higher than those outside of prison. This paper will discuss the causes of this trend as suggested by Professor Terry Kupers and other scholars.
Causes of High Suicide Rates Among Prisoners
According to Kupers and Toch (1999), there is no doubt that confining inmates who suffer from mental illnesses or those who may be prone to such illness are hazards to their well-being. It is a situation that is most likely going to cause irreparable emotional damage, psychiatric disability, as well as mental suffering. In some cases, the listed effects of confinement present a high risk of suicide among prisoners. People who enter prisons while suffering from psychiatric disorders could find their problems worsened by the stress of confinement and unhealthy surrounding. There is a high chance that symptoms that would have been previously under control may re-emerge in a more disabling manner during confinement. A mentally disturbed prisoner faces a major hurdle in trying to remain stable without the presence of a safe social interaction space and meaningful activities. Too often, the vulnerable prisoners end up being confined to their cells, and the prolonged time they face in solitary leaves them with psychological damage, anxiety, and a high risk of committing suicide. Given that a huge number of mentally ill prisoners are locked up in confinement for about twenty-three hours daily, the risk of suicide is almost always guaranteed (Pratt, 2015). The frustration of confinement often takes its toll on prisoners who tend to hurt themselves under the influence of rage and disorientation. This is one of the reasons why the prison suicides have continuously been cited as being significantly higher than those outside of prison.
The high rate of prison suicide can also be associated with overcrowding. Overcrowding means that there is an inadequate quantity of staff to cater to the prisoners. The overpopulation exposes the facilities such that mentally ill inmates end up being mixed with the general prison population. By the time this happens, a prison facility’s resources are already stretched to their minimum, and the outcome is not encouraging either. Prisoners who may have never shown any sign of suffering from psychiatric disturbances in the past begin to report psychiatric symptoms (Kaba et al., 2014). There is a worrying development that seems to show that mixing the general prison population with other prisoners, whose mental illnesses have not been attended to, tends to compromise their mental health. As the condition of the mentally ill deteriorates, the rest of the population suffers subsequent damage to their mental health wellbeing (Sundt, 2016). The reaction to this crisis is always problematic because it serves to increase the risk of exacerbating the already precarious situation among prisoners. The extreme mental anguish and psychiatric disability present a risk of suicide. It is for this reason that high rates of suicide have been cited among prisoners.
Inadequate mental health care is a factor that contributes to high suicide death rates in prisons. Without appropriate care, the mentally ill prisoner continues to suffer from painful symptoms. Their conditions often deteriorate and turn to huddling silently in their confinements. As the situation worsens, they rebel and lash out towards officers and other prisoners without provocation. Bennett (2016) explains that prison systems that have inadequate inclination to treat the mentally ill prisoners properly turn towards disciplinary isolation and solitary confinement as a short term “solution.” The often disruptive and troublesome prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses are placed in solitary confinement to act as disciplinary units. Extreme isolation escalates the problem and exposes such vulnerable prisoners to suicidal thoughts. Studies on attempted suicide within prisons have shown that solitary confinement is a critical factor in suicidal ideation. All these challenges begin with the inadequacies in mental health care in some of the prison systems, which would have been relied upon to offer appropriate care.
When the task of handling “disruptive” and “troublesome” mentally ill prisoners is left to poorly trained staff, the deterioration of their mental health is inevitable. As horrific as it is, this is how some of the American prison systems are encouraging suicidal ideation and thoughts. They are driving petty offenders, criminals, and the mentally ill into madness. The degrading treatment that prisoners experience shows the widespread inefficiencies of public mental health (Shalev, 2014). The correctional facilities can, therefore, be viewed as contributing factors towards the high suicide rates among prisoners. The inmates have deprived the basic right of human existence by being confined in prison systems with inadequate mental health care.
The high rate of suicide among inmates is a worrisome trend. It is a multidimensional aspect that is promoted by the events that go on behind bars as well as the operation systems of prisons. The correctional facilities have to be evaluated when many prisoners develop mental disorders as soon as they are subjected to the system. Also, the facilities are headed towards a crisis if the current problems of overpopulation and inadequate mental health programs are not addressed. Moreover, the prisons continue to swell with more people, and this condition will continue to stretch their resources. Therefore, the mentally unstable prisoners must be accorded better care as soon as they are imprisoned, and the general prison population must be monitored. Most importantly, the use of solitary confinement has to be re-evaluated now that studies show its link to mental illness.
Bennett, A. E. (2016). Solitary confinement and mental illness among prison populations. Family & Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly, 8(4).
Kaba, F., Lewis, A., Glowa-Kollisch, S., Hadler, J., Lee, D., Alper, H., … & Venters, H. (2014). Solitary confinement and risk of self-harm among jail inmates. American journal of public health, 104(3), 442-447.
Kupers, T. A., & Toch, H. (1999). Prison madness: The mental health crisis behind bars and what we must do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lurigio, A. J., & Harris, A. J. (2016). Inmates with serious mental illnesses. In T.G. Blomberg, J. M. Brancale, K.M. Beaver & W.D. Bales (Eds.), Advancing Criminology and Criminal Justice Policy (355-). New York, NY: Routledge.
Pratt, D. (Ed.). (2015). The prevention of suicide in prison: Cognitive behavioural approaches. London: Routledge.
Shalev, S. (2014). Solitary confinement as a prison health issue. In World Health Organisation (WHO), Prisons and Health (27-35). Copenhagen: WHO.
Sundt, J. (2016). Solitary confinement. In C.M. Hilinski-Rosick & J.P. Walsh (Eds.), Issues in Corrections: Research, Policy, and Future Prospects (111-134). London: Lexington Books.