Suicide rates in prisons and jails are much higher than those in the general population. This is supported by numerous research studies in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and in other countries, and this is not surprising given the various factors associated with prison suicides.
What is surprising, however, is that, unlike in the general population where the suicide rate for women is lower than for men, the number of women committing suicide in prison is almost the same.
Characteristics of Women Prisoners
Women offenders are the least studied in prison literature, with only a handful of published articles looking at the state of affairs of incarcerated women. With the increasing number of women in prison through the years, however — the female jail population grew by 60 percent between 1990 and 1998 — interest has again been focused on the issue.
Until the 1990s, it was assumed that women did not commit suicide in prison as often as men did, and it was only through the studies done by British researcher Alison Liebling on suicide in prison that this was proven to be a misconception.
Female detainees are characterized to possess more major risk factors, thus, being at a higher risk for suicide. According to Mary Dodge and Mark Pogrebin, women in prison experience a very strong sense of isolation, conflict, and guilt at being separated from their children. All these could lead to depression; self-injury, including suicide, is a common response by women inmates, pointing out that the alienating environment in prison encourages suicidal feelings.
Unlike men in prison, women are also unable to count on a spouse to provide a home for the children; thus, female parents suffer more anxiety about childcare and even custody, as most of them hope for and expect reunification after their release. This anxiety is made worse when their husbands divorce them or when deserted by their partners once they are detained.
Female prisoners also have a high prevalence of mental illness, ranging from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia, personality disorders, and substance-induced disorders. Post-traumatic disorders are common as their coping skills are seen to be lower than women in general population. When taken into account that imprisoned women are more likely to have a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse, it does seem inevitable that incarcerated women could turn to suicide as a coping mechanism.
Although unhealthy, suicide gives women a sense of control and a way to communicate internal pain.
Recommendations for Prison Suicide Prevention
Worldwide, efforts are being taken to address the issues identified in research studies on prison suicides. A major recommendation is that isolation cells should be avoided whenever possible. Isolation is already a major risk factor for suicide and using isolation cells could only make suicidal feelings worse and even hasten suicidal attempts. One inmate in Inez Cardozo-Freeman’s study (in Lindsay Hayes’ 1995 book) said that anyone would prefer death over staying in isolation cells.
Other recommendations include a better screening procedure for suicidal behavior, additional mental health staff to address the mental health of prisoners, strengthened suicide prevention training for prison staff, and preventive intervention for long-term inmates. More importantly, comprehensive suicide prevention policies should also be put in place.
For female inmates, it has also been recommended that giving opportunities to released women prisoners for reentry into the job market, reintegration in the community and reunification with families, could reduce anxiety while in prison.
Birmingham, L. (2003). The mental health of prisoners. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 9, 191-201.
Charles, D.R., K.M. Abram, G.M. McClelland, & L.A. Teplin. (February 2003). Suicidal ideation and behavior among women in jail. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 19:1, 65-81.
Dodge, M., & M. R. Pogrebin. (March 2001). Collateral costs of imprisonment for women: Complications of reintegration. The Prison Journal, 81:1, 42-54.
Hayes, L.M. (1995). Prison suicide: An overview and guide to prevention. Mass.: National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.
Schrader, T. (November 2005). Close your eyes and throw away the key: Mental health of female prisoners. New Doctor 83.
Worrall, A. (1996). “Gender, Criminal Justice, and Probation.” In G. McIvor (Ed.), Working with Offenders. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.