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A Look at Suicide & the Prisoners Who Make Such Choices

Listed as the second leading cause of death for 15-29 year-olds globally, suicide in our communities is a serious health problem. Estimates show that a suicide takes place every minute. For each fatal attempt, there are as many as 20 non-fatal ones. When it comes to suicide, one of the larger at-risk groups is inmates.

A Disclaimer from the Writer

This issue is not just about the facts. Many of us have been impacted by the deaths of people close to us. Suicide affects everyone. It causes ripples that reach far into the roots of us as people. Removing the sadness and frustration and anger from this topic is not only intrinsically difficult but also does a disservice. We need to show how terrible these bites of cold, hard data truly are.

The loss of each person is tragic enough. Consider the loss of each person whose lives they touched feels at their absence. But for the sake of scope and discussion, the facts should come first and foremost. In rage and despair, it is easy to get lost in the tragedy of the one. This discussion is about the tragedy of the many.

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After all, this issue is not isolated. Only by moving from the specific to the general can the vastness of this systematic problem begin to take shape. For this reason, my tone may seem rational and broad and distant. But I think it is for the best. It is impossible to keep all emotion from spilling over, but I will do my best.

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The Facts About Inmates Suicides

On the whole, inmates have a higher rate of suicide than their community counterparts. According to estimates, pretrial detainees have a suicide attempt rate of  7.5 times. Sentenced prisoners have a rate of six times that of males out of prison, in the general population. Additionally, some studies estimate that even as the number of prisoners decreases the rates continue to rise.

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But Why?

There are a lot of reasons someone might turn to such an irreversible and dark end. According to one international study, there is a multitude of replicable associations of risk including:

  • Ethnicity
  • Sentence length
  • A history of self-harm
  • Various clinical factors

Though the details may vary, the truth is those who take their own lives do so out of a feeling of hopelessness. A lack of belief that a situation has any chance of changing. This is the reason inmates are an at-risk group for suicide.

The entire corrections system—from intake to release—is antithetical to reintegration. First off, prisons are built and intended to shut off prisoners from society. Their lives become cyclical and redundant. Every morning they wake up. They do banal work for a few hours. Then they eat, go outside, sleep.

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Every day is the same fluorescent lighting and the same people. They are barred off from everything that brought happiness to their lives before they entered prison. The solution is not to look to the future. It doesn’t take a cynic to see that resetting after incarceration is incredibly difficult.

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The few success stories almost always have safety nets to support them. Without those support networks, inmates have nowhere to go but down following their release. That is, assuming they will be released at all.

To compound the problem, inmates’ access to psychological help and is severely limited by economic stresses. Often, corrections systems are isolated from community mental health programs. They often have poor or no access to mental health professionals or treatments. Even in the case of well-meaning and well-trained counselors, there are simply too many inmates for everyone to receive the care they need.

A noose casting a shadow in front of the shadow of prison bars.
No suicide ever results from something simple. Tragically harsh conditions and a lack of emotional guidance and support is something many prison inmates have in common with suicide victims. Image Source: Prison Phone

What Can Be Done

It is here where change needs to happen first. Systematic restructuring of the justice system will take time and a lot of legislation. However, information and public interest can do a lot to push that timeline forward.

Perhaps most important in tackling the issue of suicides in prisons is recognizing that there is an issue at all. From there, we can begin to tackle the symptom fixes of mental health training and earlier identification of at-risk inmates before we tackle the sickness itself.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.
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