Most people have thought about suicide, perhaps fleetingly, at some point in the lives. Quite a few actually try. But killing yourself is not easy – even when you’re depressed and desperate. Research suggests that between 10 and 20 people make an attempt for every one that succeeds.
A ‘successful’ suicide takes a lot of thought. You need a well thought out plan and the means to actually do it, such as access to a gun or a cliff to jump off. If you’re serious, you also need to choose a place carefully, one where no one will try and stop you.
Private vs public suicide
Very little research has been done on where suicides usually take place. One British study found that most people commit suicide in private where no one is likely to intervene. It found that only about 30% of suicides occurred in public places, but nearly half of those occurred in isolated rural locations where intervention was also unlikely. This suggests about 85% of suicides occur in ‘private’.
However, this particular study also classified suicides in prison as ‘private’. They’re not. Prisoners have almost no privacy, especially those who have to share a cell. There are cameras monitoring common areas and officers are supposed to check on prisoners in their cells at regular intervals.
Common means to kill yourself
Considerably more research has been conducted on the means people use to kill themselves. The most common methods include shooting yourself (especially in the US), drug overdose, drinking poison, jumping from a height, drowning, hanging, throwing yourself in front of a moving object, carbon monoxide poisoning (car exhaust) and suffocation with a plastic bag. Some of these are done in public places, but the majority occur in private.
Most of these means are not available to prisoners which leaves hanging as the only viable option. But even that can be difficult – modern prisons are designed to ensure there are no obvious ligature or hanging points. It’s also hard for prisoners to find something to make a noose. In New Zealand prisons, inmates who are known to be depressed are placed in the At Risk cells with no clothes, sheets or blankets. All they get is a canvas tunic which is almost impossible to rip up. And there is a camera in the cell 24/7.
Despite such difficulties, Antonie Dixon hung himself by covering up the camera with wet toilet paper for five hours while he slowly ripped up the canvas tunic – and no one intervened. Another inmate with an injured arm hung himself with his sling. The reality is that 91% of prisoners who commit suicide in New Zealand do so by hanging.
Prison suicide rate
According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand’s suicide rate among the general population is 10.6 per 100,000 people. The suicide rate in prison varies from year to year but on average is five to ten times higher than the rate in the community. In 2011, 11 prisoners committed suicide giving a rate of 129 per 100,000. This means that in 2011, 12 times as many prisoners killed themselves (per head of population) than depressed individuals in the community – despite the fact that inmates who commit suicide are doing it in an environment where there is very little privacy and hanging is virtually the only means available.
Despite these difficulties, in the last five years about 30 prisoners have managed to commit suicide in New Zealand. But there’s more to this suffering than meets the eye. After Liberty Charles Baker killed himself in Mt Eden prison last week, Corrections Department Northern Regional Commissioner, Jeanette Burns, said:
“Our staff have saved the lives of approximately 100 prisoners over the last five years. These prisoners were involved in self-harm incidents where the individual would have been unlikely to survive without staff intervention.”
This level of intervention shows that prison is a very ‘public’ place as far as suicide is concerned. If Corrections officers hadn’t intervened, the suicide rate would have averaged 26 a year – that’s 305 dead prisoners per 100,000 – 28 times the rate in the community. This doesn’t show how compassionate prison officers are; what it shows is how desperate people become when they end up in prison. The situation is so bad that 20% of inmates are actively thinking about suicide at any one time.
Corrections Department spin
Spokesmen (or women) for the Corrections Department absolve the Department of any responsibility and generally blame the prisoners when one of them commits suicide. By way of explanation for Mr Baker’s death, Jeanette Burns said:
“Inmates are often suffering from extremely poor mental health when they arrive in prison and the care they receive in prison often far exceeds what they were accessing in the community”.
That’s typical spin from one of the Department’s leading spinsters. It is contradicted by every study done on prison suicide including a recent report, ‘Mental Health Treatment and Services in NZ Prisons are Inadequate’ which says:
“The Department of Corrections does not provide therapeutic services such as counselling to those with mild to moderate mental health conditions as it retains the view that they have a custodial role, not a therapeutic one… prisoners with mild to moderate illnesses are left to languish and to receive mental health treatment in prison, you must be intensely ill.”
A Sunday Star Times investigation in 2011 came to a similar conclusion. It found that:
“In order to get treatment in prison, you have to go really mad”.
According to a National Health Committee report only about 5% of prisoners get mental health treatment while in prison. Considering how difficult it is to kill yourself in prison, if you start going crazy but no treatment is available, hanging yourself might seem like a viable option. According to Jeanette Burns, around 26 prisoners a year make that choice. When life is so miserable and you are that distressed, imagine how you feel if you don’t succeed.
Then you get sent to the At Risk unit where you’re not allowed visitors, there’s no TV, no radio, no books, no clothes, no blankets and the lights are turned on every 15 minutes at night so the officers can check that you’re still alive.
Now, in addition to being suicidal, you can’t get to sleep. If you weren’t already crazy, that should drive you completely bonkers. But that’s alright – go ‘really mad’. Then you’ll be one of the 5% that’s eligible for psychiatric treatment.