Call for suicide prevention priority in prisons

‘Prisoners’ lives matter. But we often act as if they do not and thus should not be surprised at the high rates of suicide.’ Ella Rhodes reports.

With the numbers of prisoners dying by suicide at a record high, Professor Graham Towl, formerly the Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice, has written for the Howard League for Penal Reform calling for a greater focus on suicide prevention in UK prisons. 

Writing for the charity’s Early Careers Academics Network Bulletin, Towl (Durham University) argued that a starting point for change is to make the saving of prisoners’ lives an explicit priority within institutions. Once this priority is established among leaders of prisons then resources will follow, he said: ‘I contend that there is insufficient priority given to suicide prevention in prisons and this is likely to make a significant contribution to suicide rates.’ Towl, who has recently published a book on the topic, Suicide in Prisons: Prisoners’ Lives Matter with co-author David Crighton, also said the increasing pressure to move prisoners from institution to institution more often is likely to drive up suicide numbers. 

Decreasing numbers of prison officers has also been cited as a huge problem, but Towl suggested this could be tackled by balancing resources more effectively and only using imprisonment as a last resort: ‘From my perspective, current levels of imprisonment are utterly out of kilter with the needs of justice or society more widely, in that sense we live through some worrying times in terms of the uses and abuses of state use of imprisonment. Fundamentally there is no need for more prison officers, but rather, fewer prisoners,’ he wrote. 

While hiring more prison officers is sensible, given the rising number of prisoners in the UK, Towl, also a member of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, suggested health professionals placed within prisons could be useful in helping to prevent suicides. Similarly, those health professionals, including psychological staff, who already work within prisons could be redeployed to help work towards reducing suicide deaths. 

Towl also summarised the evidence about some of the riskier times for suicide during incarceration – for example risk for dying by suicide is very high in the early stages of imprisonment. Gender, too, is an important issue when considering prevention, with the suicide risk for incarcerated women increasing far more markedly than for men. Another stark gender difference is that men become more likely to die by suicide as they age in prison while the reverse is true for women who seem to be more at risk while younger. 

Without suicide being given a priority by prisons, Towl wrote, there should be no expectation that rates will decline. ‘What is needed is clear leadership in prioritising suicide prevention with a focus upon both the evidence and compassion. In short, prisoners’ lives matter.’

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