07 Mar 2024

Tackling prison suicide – why we need to talk about it and how training can help

We need to talk about suicide in prisons. More than two-thirds of people recently surveyed in prison by inspectors said that they needed help with their mental health. Men in prison are 3.7 times more likely to die by suicide than people in the general population and women an astonishing 20 times more likely. And it’s getting worse. The rise in the number of suicides in these facilities is not only a tragic loss of life but also a clear indicator of deeper systemic problems that we need innovative solutions to tackle.

Prisons, inherently designed as institutions for punishment and rehabilitation, have become environments where mental health issues are exacerbated, and individuals often feel isolated, hopeless, and desperate. It’s a, quite frankly, horrible place to be, and at the same time as needing to administer justice, we need to uphold the fundamental rights and dignity of those incarcerated. We also need to look at how we rehabilitate people. How do we work to make their lives better on release than it was when they went in? If nothing changes, personally, socially, economically, it makes it hard to live a different kind of life.

Many prisons operate at overcapacity, leading to inadequate living conditions, limited access to services, and stretched staff resources. This environment fosters stress, violence, and neglect of inmates’ mental health needs. Because we know that a significant proportion of the prison population suffers from pre-existing mental health conditions, which are often exacerbated by the prison environment. Data shows that nine out of ten prisoners have at least one mental health or substance misuse problem. The lack of adequate mental health services within prisons means that many individuals do not receive the support they need – something that has worsened as a result of lockdowns. Although more than two-thirds (67%) of people surveyed by inspectors said that they needed help with their mental health, a

Justice Committee report found that only around 10% of people in custody are receiving treatment for mental illness. Under such circumstances, the risks of people contemplating suicide are high: 46% of women have attempted suicide at some point, and 21% of men.

Solitary confinement and segregation practices contribute to feelings of isolation and despair. The absence of sufficient rehabilitative and support programmes leaves inmates struggling to find hope and purpose. Our Mental Health Media Production Unit, Downview Media House and Radio Wanno projects helped people connect and build community at the same time as giving them something to work for and opportunities to build skills and enhance employment opportunities on release. We have worked in over 20 prisons in England, designing and facilitating multiple film-based participatory workshops as a way of engaging people in prison in education and training, in support of their general rehabilitation.

Addressing the crisis of suicide in UK prisons requires comprehensive reform and the implementation of supportive measures. Prisons must be equipped with adequate mental health services, including timely assessments, counselling, and therapeutic interventions. Training staff to recognise and respond to mental health crises is also essential – not only in prisoners but amongst themselves. And we need to ensurethat living conditions within prisons are humane and conducive to rehabilitation can significantly impact inmates’ mental wellbeing.

By expanding access to educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programmes, such as our media production work, prisoners can gain a sense of purpose and hope for the future. They gain support networks outside prison that can help alleviate feelings of isolation and forge relationships that can help them maintain their lives outside. 

Our hope is that our work can help address underlying factors contributing to suicide in prisons through reformative and supportive measures, and help move us towards a system that truly rehabilitates and preserves the dignity and life of every individual within its care.