Preventing Suicide in Prison & Release
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CCC findings on suicide


Listen to the address of Professor James Ogloff to a Coalition forum on 2 December 2008 here>>> and listen to the questions that followed here>>>

  “The ACT has a duty of care to protect prisoners at risk, particularly from self-harm” (Chief Minister)

 Suicide in prison is a big problem

“There have been reductions overall in the completed suicides in custody but across the country at the same time the rate of suicides that do occur in custody are still between 2 and 12 times what we see in the general community” (Prof. Ogloff). 

“The rates of suicide and self-harm are higher among prison populations than in the wider community” (Official Communication Plan, Alexander Maconochie Centre Project)

 But suicide on release is a much, much bigger problem

“In Victoria 11 people per hundred thousand commit suicide. This is the rate while people are supervised in the community. It is about 250 per hundred thousand” (Prof. Ogloff).

 “The likelihood of an individual committing suicide exponentially increases in the time after which they are discharged. What happens very often is that obviously prison services have responsibility of taking care of people when they are in their custody – and that is well established in law - then there is greater difficulty in providing services when they are discharged. Yet, as we see this is really a much bigger problem. Certainly, one hopes that within the ACT there will be after care systems in place” (Prof. Ogloff).

 Typical measures to prevent suicide in prison increase the risk of suicide on release

“Crisis management . . . works in the short term but not in the long term. It’s like a child again. If you want to stop the child over time from fighting and engaging in difficulty, you don’t beat them and lock them in a closet. We know that that has long term problems. But that’s what we still do in prisons. We don’t beat people but we lock them in what is effectively a closet. And sometimes although we don’t beat them physically, we still beat them emotionally” (Prof. Ogloff).

 “Let me just end with a quote from a colleague of mine who is a professor of forensic psychiatry in Victoria. And this is something he wrote almost ten years ago:

‘Placing potentially suicidal prisoners in isolation cells stripped of furniture, clear of hanging points and subject to the constant gaze of prison staff may be a cheap and, in the very short term, effective suicide prevention strategy, but should remain unacceptable to a mental health professional concerned with the state of mind and long term mental health of their patient’” (Prof. Ogloff).

 How the prison is run and other aspects of the prison environment have a big influence on people becoming suicidal

“Similarly [to the approach taken to reduce road trauma by requiring the use of seat belts] in prisons the sensible way to reduce distress and suicide is to take a public health approach to incarceration. What this means is actually reducing the levels of distress. Prisons have a place for removing people from the community but at the same time it is not to torture individuals or to make their lives particularly miserable.  The consequences of that are very negative” (Prof. Ogloff).

“The prison itself is part of the community. So it’s just a question of making sure that there is a bridge to that community and particularly identifying the vulnerable in that transition”

 Having a modern and appropriate environment“. . . starts with governance and leadership at the top and setting very clear rules, role modeling, training of staff. The recruitment of staff has become difficult prior to the financial crisis with the financial boom. . . . It’s instilling a culture and the best opportunity is when you’ve got a new prison to do that. It is not just the building. The building is the last thing that matters. . . . You cannot have a new building without a new culture. So it’s culture first and building second” (Prof. Ogloff).

 Close attention must be paid to the re-integration of people into the community

“People may know it but obviously the reality is that most people don’t have much money. But what is very typical is that they’ll have a flat. When they go to prison there is no one to go and pay the rent and take care of it. The landlords have the right to seize their assets and dispose of them to pay for the debt. Or they have storage lockers they can’t pay for. So very often they’re leaving with nothing – women and men. So as I said, the prison itself is part of the community. So it’s a matter of making sure that there is a bridge to that community and particularly identifying the vulnerable in that transition” (Prof. Ogloff).

 “How do you get the whole of government to support people as they are leaving – housing and so forth? Again, the only way to do it is by first to have the Government to buy in but also having what is very common now, regular committees that meet of those representatives and begin to deal with it. Certainly, there is often very good will in housing and other agencies and it is a matter of bringing them to the table and they’ll help you sort that out. So it’s working collectively and effectively together” (Prof. Ogloff).

The audio of Professor Ogloff’s address to a Coalition forum is available at [link to audio].

Key recommendations of the Coalition’s study, “Healthy or Harmful? Mental Health and the Operational Regime of the New ACT Prison”

 There should be whole of government planning to set in place a seamless set of measures in support of those detained to be taken within the prison and out into the community. These measures should include adequately resourced community services and, in particular, prearranged mental health support.

 There must be put in place standing arrangements to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the prison by reference to what occurs to people after and not just on their release.

 What the Coalition’s own study on mental health has to say on Suicide and Self-Harm