When Prison Means Life: Child Lifers and the Pains of Imprisonment*

David Scott, The Open University



Source: Medway Secure Training Centre, BBC / ‘The Justice Gap’


Why No Scandal?

The experiences of children in prison have failed to create the kind of scandal which might be expected in a modern, progressive and civilised society. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet there seems to be both public and political acceptance of their incarceration, despite mounting evidence of its terribly harmful effects.  Although the number of children in prison has fallen enormously since 2007, there are still more than 800 children in prison, of which 42 are under the age of 14.  We also need to situate this also within the context of social backgrounds of the children we imprison.  43% of children in prison are from BAME backgrounds (which is a significant rise in BAME child prisoners in 2007 when it was 24%) and significant numbers of children in custody have drug problems, learning difficulties, mental health problems and have witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence.  Although only 1% of children and young people are in care, more than 35% boys and 61% of girls in custody have previously been in care.  Indeed, children in care are much more likely to be sent to prison than to go to University (where the figure is about 10%).


Child Life Sentences

A child prisoner includes children who are held in Secure Children Homes; Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions (the later hold around 70% of all children in custody)When talking about when prison means life for children I mean two things: 

  • First, any sentence which authorises the detention of a child potentially encompassing the rest of their natural life (including sentences of “detention for public protection” and “detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure”)
  • Second, when a child loses their life after being given a prison sentence. Here sentence length is irrelevant as the point is that their imprisonment has actually brought an end to their natural life.


According to the most recent MoJ statistics the following life sentences have been handed down to people under the age of 18 by year in England and Wales:

Table 1: Child Life Sentences

Year Child Life Sentences
2006 19
2007 26
2008 25
2009 23
2010 19
2011 15
2012 14
2013 13
2014 21
2015 14
2016 8


From 2006 – 2016 197 child life sentences were handed down.  The average age of the person at the time of sentencing is 16 years, but life sentences have been handed down in this period to children as young as 13.


The main life sentence for children is “detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure” (DHMP) but from 2004-2012 290 children were also sentenced to “detention for public protection” (which were sentences for “dangerous offenders”, Criminal Justice Act 2003 Ch. 5). Although this sentence was effectively abolished in 2012 with The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 a number of those sentenced are still in prison Although the government is not at that time able to identify the exact number of child lifers, the  Children Rights International Network (CRIN, 2015) estimate that the figure serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure or other sentence over 14 years in duration is around 400.


Despite the fall in the number of children in custody England and Wales still has the highest incarceration rate for children in Western Europe.  It also stands virtually alone in the use of child life sentences.  Of the 28 different countries in the European Union, life imprisonment for children has been abolished in 22. Two children have been sentenced to life imprisonment in France in the last 25 years and one In Ireland.  There are currently two children serving life imprisonment outside of the United Kingdom in the EU today.



Source: Hiaki Deck Educational Resources


Reducing Culpability

The original meaning of detention at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ was first introduced with the Trial of Lunatics Act of 1800.  Yet at the time detention “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was not to be a place of punishment but intended as a place of safety for those considered ‘insane’.  With the Children’ Act of 1908 – which abolished capital punishment for children – detention at “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was introduced for children aged 10-16.  The term was adopted to imply that children had a reduced degree of culpability for murder and that they should not bear full responsibility for their actions.  It indicated that it would not be appropriate to impose a life sentence on children. It was only in 1983 that the then Home Secretary explicitly linked detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure with the mandatory sentence of adult life imprisonment.


Further, in most of the countries within the European Union the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) is 14.  The MACR for children in England and Wales is 10. Yet whereas on the one hand children are held legally responsible for their actions from the age of 10, bizarrely, under the Pet Animals Act 1951, children under 12 are not deemed legally entitled to buy a pet.  Indeed, in most instances we as a society recognise we should treat children very differently to adults.


Without doubt, we should like our historical forbearers and many of European neighbours and consider life sentence for children as a form of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ and totally unsuitable for a civilised society.  Life sentences for children cannot be justified


When Prison Takes Life

The regimes experienced by child prisoners as one of deliberate harm which leads to thousands of children being physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged every year.

Indeed, child prisons are places of suffering, violence and death.


According to data from INQUEST 78 people under 21 took their own lives in child prisons from 2007-2017 and in total 318 young people under the age of 21 have died in penal custody between 1990-2017.



Source: BBC / Open Democracy


Coping with prison life a tenuous, relative and fluid concept that ebbs and flows over time. The real pains of imprisonment are to be found in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away. It is also clear that custody is experienced differently by young people. Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults. It has long been noted how suicidal ideation is heavily influenced by the nature of responses by significant others and the ‘end of hope’. Young people also have less life experience on which to rely to help to deal with problems associated with prison life, or to manage a suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.


Where do we go from here?

I would therefore like to make the following three brief conclusions:

  • Immediately abolish life imprisonment for children and look to house children who do series wrongs in places of genuine care and safety
  • Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility immediately to 14 so that we match most other European Union Countries and call for an independent review to explore the possibility of raising this to 16 as soon as possible
  • Recognise that the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children, and therefore we need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a ‘last resort’.



* This paper was originally delivered in the House of Commons, London, England
15th November 2017





Naming the prison for what it is: a place of institutionally-structured violence

David Scott, The Open University



Photo of prisoners on social media following HMP Birmingham Disturbances – Source: ibtimes.co.uk


Headline after headline in the British Press in recent months has placed a spotlight on prisoner violencePrisoner violence, especially that perpetrated by prisoners against prison officers, has been consistently portrayed as reaching epidemic proportions.  Statistics have been rolled out again and again detailing rises in assaults on staff, prisoner homicides and general levels of prisoner interpersonal violence in the last four years.  Yet much of the recent media focuses only on the physical violence perpetrated by prisoners.  Whilst such interpersonal physical violence should not be ignored or downplayed, it is only one kind of prison violence and by no means the most deadly.


Individual Pathology?

Violence is regarded by many people to be immoral and the perpetration of physical violence considered problematic by most people in most circumstances.  Official condemnations of prisoner physical violence, from the Justice Secretary, politicians, penal practitioners and penal reformers certainly have not been in short supply in recent times, but often explanations of prison violence have been reduced to prisoner individual pathology.  Pathologically violent prisoners have a deprived nature and inherent tendency towards violence (in other words, prisoners are dangerous, violent and irrational people who would be equally, if not more, violent on the outside). Analysis has rarely gone beyond this framework of understanding and it has been the approach of the current government, exemplified in the recent white paper on prisons. Physical violence by prisoners is being taken seriously and this is because it is not only the most visible form of violence but also because prisoner violence presents a direct threat to the state’s monopoly on the use of force.  But the problem of prisoner violence, and the problem of violence within prisons more generally, cannot be reduced to an increase in the number of violent prisoners alone, if at all.


The problem with the “individual pathology” argument is that ignores the brutal fact that prisons are inevitably structured according to the dictates of domination and exploitation.  Prisons are distinct moral places where normal moral conventions for daily interactions between prisoners and penal authorities can be neutralised. Physical violence in prison should not then be dislocated from the permanent and irremovable situational contexts and structures of penal confinement. Hierarchical and antagonistic relationships are naturalised in prisons and result in an ‘unequal exchange’ between people ranked differently, creating a form of structural vulnerability.  This is a key generator of conflict, antagonism and physical violence. Systemic exploitation takes many different forms in the prison place, such as through the informal prisoner code or bullying.  For prisoners, physical violence can be a way of acquiring goods and services, keeping face or fronting out problems.  In social hierarchies there are always winners and losers, with the losers open to physical (and sometimes sexual) exploitation.  Though the physical violence of prisoners is often relatively minor (with the exception of 2015 in recent times in the UK there have been only small numbers of prisoner homicides) victimisation and exploitation are routinised and part of the social organisation of the prison.  But this is not the only form of prison violence.


Prison Officer Violence

For a long time physical violence by prisoners against prison officers was taken for granted as a part of prison life.  With the promotion of a “zero tolerance” policy by the Prison Officer Association in 2012 this appears to have changed.  However it still seems to be regularly accepted that physical violence can and will be deployed by prison officers where and when deemed necessary.  Prison officer violence is also connected to the asymmetrical penal hierarchies.  Although staff cultures differ in their intensity across and within prisons, the hierarchical nature of the prison place exacerbates the ‘us and them’ mentality. Physical violence against prisoners is sometimes viewed by staff as not only necessary but also morally justifiable.  Violence is used for the right reasons to control the less eligible prisoner, something which has been referred to by Richard Edney in 1997 as “righteous violence”.  Prisoners are placed beyond the realm of understanding and the norms of common humanity.  They are Othered.  Using violence against prisoners has also in the past been used as a means of gaining respect and status as well as providing ‘excitement’ in the otherwise bleak and monotonous routine.



Prison officers control and restraint – source: videohit.tv


Prison officer autobiographies in recent years are a valuable source of information on the nature and extent of prison officer violence.  They inform us that for prison officers the location and timing of physical violence is often carefully chosen.  Sometimes it takes place in concealed and isolated spaces of the prison where the officer cannot be easily seen; other times officers may utilise the opportunities given to them by prisoners – such as targeting unpopular prisoners during prisoner disturbances or on the way to the segregation unit or applying greater force than necessary when applying restraints.  More indirectly, prison officers can facilitate prisoner-on-prisoner interpersonal violence by turning a blind eye, such as leaving the cell of a potential victim open; failing to patrol hot-spot areas known for prisoner assaults; or failing to intervene when physical violence erupts between two prisoners.


That prisons are drenched in violence does not mean, however, that physical violence is constantly exercised.  Physical violence may well be rare events in certain penal institutions, but this does not mean people live free from the shadow of violence. What is always present though is the fear of violence.  The exercise of violence can be explicit, as for example through the structured humiliations and denials of dignity within the daily role of the prison officer – strip searches; control and restraint; locking people into a cell and so on – or it can be implicit when prisoners conform because they know physical violence will follow if they do not.


Institutionally-Structured Violence

This is, however, a further form of violence in prison.  This silent, invisible yet potentially deadly form of violence has been named as institutionally-structured violenceInstitutionally-structured violence refers to the harmful outcomes created by the deprivations structured within penal regimes that restrict access to necessary life resources, thus negatively impacting upon health, wellbeing and intellectual, physical and spiritual development.  Operating independently of human actions, institutionally-structural violence has a permanent, continuous presence in the prison place and in the end produces suffering and death.  Rather than a perverse or pathological aberration, institutionally-structured violence is an inevitable and legal feature of prison life. Institutionally-structured violence is constructed through the operation of the daily rules, norms and procedures of penal institutions and impacts upon how prisoners and staff interact. Institutionally-structured violence exists when autonomy and choices are severely curtailed; human wellbeing, potential and development are undermined; feelings of safety and sense of security are weak; and human needs are systematically denied through the restrictive and inequitable distribution of resources.


HMP Manchester – Source: prisonuk.blogspot.co.uk



A person can never be truly free in prison – everywhere they will be restricted by invisible (and sometimes quite visible) chains that place significant limitations upon human movement. Restrictions on prisoner contact and relationships are structurally organised and whilst physical violence is relational and dependent upon a number of contingencies, institutionally-structured violence is embedded in, and socially produced by, the situational contexts of daily prison regimes.  Most obviously, we think of this in terms of prison conditions, crowding and the spatial restrictions created by the architectural dimensions of the prison place itself.  Prisons are a specifically designated coercive spatial order controlling human freedom, autonomy, choices, actions and relationships.  External physical barricades regulate the conditions of social existence through sealing the prisoner from their previous life, whilst internal control mechanisms survey constraints on the minutiae of the prison day.  Security restrictions on prisoner movements – such as access to educational and treatment programmes; religious instruction; work and leisure provision – are carefully structured and regimented around predetermined orderings of time and space.  The architecture of the prison place determines the location of events and distribution of bodies and in so doing also highly regulates relationships, and subsequently physical violence.


The harm generated by the general lack of privacy and intimacy; the ‘forced relationality’ between prisoners sharing a cell; insufficient living space and personal possessions; the indignity of eating and sleeping in what is in effect a lavatory; living daily and breathing in the unpleasant smells of body odour, urine and excrement; the humiliation of defecating in the presence of others are all examples of institutionally-structured violence.  Yet if these visible daily spatial constraints were all there was to institutionally-structured violence then prison reformers’ calls for improved prison designs, conditions, greater forms of autonomy and enhanced resources allowing prisoners to choose how they live their lives might be considered sufficient. But sadly they are not.


Prisons are places of estrangement.  They will always be places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons are places which constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, alienation and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons are lonely, isolating and brutalising experiences.  Prisons are places of dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of their basic human needs. Combined with saturation in time consciousness / awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death.  For prison officers cultures of moral indifference and neglect are facilitated in such a culture where prisoner shared humanity is neutralised and the pain and suffering of fellow humans ignored.


Source: BBC News


Abolish Violence

The starting point is to name the prison for what it actually is – a place of institutionally-structured violence.  This entails denaturalising taken for granted deprivations structured within daily penal regime and acknowledging that prisons produce a specific moral climate that is more likely to dehumanise and dehabilitate than positively transform an individual.  Through articulating the brutal mundaneness of everyday prison life so corrosive to human flourishing and wellbeing we can facilitate a new culture that can assist in making the full extent of prison violence more visible.


Prisons are the enemy of the people, not their protector.  Prisons life is an unfolding human tragedy for all those caught up in exploitative and oppressive relations. Focusing on prisons as a form of institutionally-structured violence also highlights the tensions around promoting the criminal law as a means of responding to social harms such as sexual violence.  Indeed, the punishment of sexual violence has not only led to the reinforcement of state legitimacy but in the USA at least to further expansion of the penal net among poor, disadvantaged and marginalised women.   The belief that prisons can be used to ‘control’ male violence and create greater safety and public protection are today key ways of legitimating the prison place: by focusing on institutionally-structured violence it is possible to challenge this logic.  The prison cannot provide a means of increasing the safety and well-being of anyone, be they ‘victims’, ‘offenders’ or ‘bystanders’.


When focusing on ‘institutional structures’ though we must be careful the argument is not reduced to a crude form of social pathology.  There is also always the danger that such analysis can lead to the denial of human agency.  Human choices are constrained by social circumstances, not determined by them.  So we should acknowledge that current patterns of interactions in prison can be challenged.  Prison authorities and prison officers should be encouraged to talk openly about the harmful consequences they see on a daily basis: they, alongside prisoners, can bear witness to truth of current penal realities and should be allowed to do so without negative consequences.  Whilst it is impossible to change all the structural arrangements of the prison place, there are still everyday operational practices and cultures that can transformed.  Emancipatory humanitarian changes can be introduced to mitigate the worst excesses of institutionally-structured violence.  Some need deprivations can be removed and many daily infringements of human dignity can be greatly reduced.  Cultural changes can be made to promote a democratic culture providing first a voice to prisoners and then a commitment to listen to that voice with respect and due consideration. Finding new non-violent ways of dealing with personal conflicts and troubles in prison would also reduce the extent of physical violence and would help de-legitimate cultures of violence.


Yet prisons can never free themselves of violence entirely.  Prisons systematically generate suffering and death.  We must then urgently, vigorously and robustly call for a radical reduction in the use of prison.  Quite simply, violence can never be used as a weapon against violence.

Prisons systematically generate suffering and death: thinking beyond reform

David Scott, The Open University


HMP Woodhill, Buckingham, England: Source: BBC


Perhaps one of the most disturbing feature of imprisonment today is the tragically high number of self-inflicted deaths [SIDs].  At 120 SIDs per 100,000 people, prisoners are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than those living in the wider community.  On 18th November 2016 the one hundredth (100) prisoner killed themselves this calendar year.  This equates to one prisoner taking their own life every 3 days in prisons in England and Wales.  The official data also indicates that a prisoner attempts to kill themselves every 5 hours and that a prisoner is recorded as self-harming every 20 minutes. By the 24h November 306 people had died in prison in England and Wales in 2016 (on average of nearly one person a day).  All this evidence points to the fact that prisons are places of terrible harm and death.


A history of death

Whilst current explanations of the high number of SIDs have been reduced to prisoner mental health problems and reduced numbers of staffing, deaths in prison cannot be restricted solely to prisoner vulnerabilities and regressive policy changes in the last six years.  The officially recorded figure indicates that self-inflicted deaths in prison have risen substantially for the last four decades.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded ‘suicides’ in prison. This number, however, leapt by over 100% in 1987 to 46 recorded suicides. Official data show that there was another major incline of recorded deaths only seven years later, in 1994 when, for the first time, more than 60 SIDs were recorded; and yet again, four years after that in 1998, when more than 80 people took their own lives.  The highest number of prisoner SIDs prior to this year was in 2004, when 96 prisoner SIDs were recorded for that year.  Yet though less people died, because of the lower prisoner population at that time, at 127.2 per 100,000 prisoners, the ratio of death was actually higher in 2004 than in 2016.  What is important to note is that there have been large number of prisoner deaths since the prisons were ‘reformed’ in the early nineteenth century, indicating how deeply entrenched death is in the everyday workings of prisons.


Alongside the sheer number of SIDs, in recent day’s concern has quite rightly focused on the clustering of six SID’s from 2015 – 2016 at HMP Woodhill, a high security male prison in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.  Yet sadly this is not an aberration – cluster deaths have plagued prisons for years.   For example, from 1987-89 11 SIDs were recorded at Risley Remand Centre. Five young men aged from 17 and 19 died while on remand at HMP Armley from May 1988 and February 1989, whilst from August 1991 to March 1992 four young offenders, including a 15 year old, took their own lives at Feltham YOI. Six women hanged themselves in a three-year period from 2002 to 2005 at HMP Durham H wing, whilst from August 2002 to September 2003 six women took their lives at HMP Styal. Previous cluster deaths at adult male prisoners include the five prisoners who killed themselves at HMP Whitemoor from 19 November 2006 and 10 December 2007.


To understand, then, why so many people die in prisons, we need to think beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis confronting prisons.  This means challenging assumption propagated by the media, politicians, prison reformers and the POA that staffing levels and prisoner mental health lie at the heart of the problem.


Prison staff

Among traditional prison officer cultures the prisoner is often considered as “inferior” or “lesser”, and so rather the being treated with respect, care and decency, prisoner relationships with prison officers have often been based on indifference and neglect.  According to one study, the legitimate terms for prison officers who adhere to a traditional working personality when referring to prisoners can include:  Nick Names (Smithy, Jonesy); Second Names (Smith, Jones); 1st names; Prison Number; “Dicks”, “dickheads”, “cunts”, “bollocks”,  and “wanker”.  The legitimate terms for prisoners when referring to staff were “Boss”, “Officer”, “Mr”, and “Sir”.  These forms of address by disciplinarian officers become a means of institutionalising lesser eligibility and informally maintaining a psychic divide.   In this same study of prison officers it was found that prisoners were described by officers as:


“Selfish”, “pathetic”, “childlike”, “untrustworthy”, “ill-disciplined”, “irresponsible”, “bad bastards”, “overly demanding”, “inadequate”, “dangerous”, “layabouts”, “toe-rags”, “needy”, “druggies”, “contagious”, “scum”, “poor copers”, “manipulators”, “wasters”, “users”.


Negative categorisations justify neglect and lead to the blaming of prisoners for their own dreadful predicament.  Those who harm themselves or attempt to take their own lives are labelled by some prison officers as childish and pathetic manipulators whose harming act is part of a ‘general display of attention-seeking behaviour’.  Controversy has arisen in the past regarding the apparent complacency of staff and the neglect of prisoners who are experiencing serious emotional difficulties On March 11 2004 Arif Hussain took his own life at HMP Full Sutton whilst in the jails segregation unit.  Eye witness testimonies described how Arif’s “screams of agony were ignored by staff for hours”.  When he later repeatedly rang his alarm bell for attention, rather than respond to him the night staff switched it off.


Prison Officers, HMP Risey.  Source: BBC


This negative attitude to the lesser prisoner is not restricted to prison officers alone.  A prison operational manager in a recently published book by a prison governor is quoted as saying:


Sometimes I think, ‘oh fuck, if the guy wants to kill himself, fucking get on with it’ but when I’m on the shop floor I can’t demonstrate it can I? These guys on dirty protest, I’d like to throw my own bucket of piss over them myself, but you can’t do that because it’s not humane.  Doesn’t stop you thinking it though does it? I have to make sure that the staff hold that moral ground.



The current focus on prison officer numbers is predicated on the assumption that there is now less care for prisoners by staff.  But the evidence above indicates that prison officer numbers and prisoner care cannot be easily quantified.  Neither is it obvious that close prisoner-prison officer relationships mitigate the harms of imprisonment.  A study of self-harm and SID’s of women prisoners in England and Wales in 2007 found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that “feeling closer to correctional staff increases a woman’s risk of self-harm and suicide ideation only in England”. This might help explain why the data appears to indicate there is no obvious correlation between historical rates of self-inflicted deaths and in prison officers staffing levels.   Certainly, if we explore the data over the last hundred and fifty years in terms of prisoner self-inflicted deaths and prison officer- prisoner staffing ratios we find that in the last four decades there are record rates of recorded self-inflicted deaths at the same time as there have been record high levels of prison officer – prisoner ratios.


Individual pathologies?

The other main reason proposed for the high number of deaths is prisoner mental health problems. ‘Suicide’ risk has for a long time been connected to ‘abnormal’ people with serious mental health problems. The suicidal prisoner is considered to suffer from fear, depression, despondency and hopelessness and a general inability to adapt to prison life. They simply do not have the personal resources to cope with the deprivations of imprisonment. Whilst this argument around mental ill-health is clearly of significance, as an explanation of the actual deaths of prisoners it has proved remarkably limited. The problem is that even if a person who takes their life has mental health problems this alone cannot tell us why they took their life at that specific time or indeed provide any insight into the distinct set of interpersonal dynamics leading up to the act.


It has proved exceptionally difficult to identify the manner in which mental health problems actually relate to suicidal attempts or to differentiate the ‘suicidal’ from the rest of the prison population. One of the key revelations is the evidence of the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among prisoners, with a number of recent studies identifying exceptionally high levels of suicidal ideation (i.e. thoughts about taking own life): 46% of male remand prisoners have thought of ‘suicide’ in their lifetime, and 40% of male prisoners and 55% of female prisoners experience suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, compared with 14% of men and 4% of women living in the wider community.


Whilst many people in prison do have mental health problems, those who commit ‘suicide’ are less likely to have a psychiatric history than those on the outside who take their own lives.  There has in fact been a systematic failure of identification by the Prison Service of those who are likely to attempt to take their own lives.  Under the current Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork [ACCT] policy only around 1 in 4 prisoners who successfully end their lives are identified as a risk of ‘suicide’.



Sarah Reed, who died in HMP Holloway in February 2016: Source dailymail.co.uk


The pains of imprisonment

There is one further explanation of SID’s that has not been fully explored in the media or in contemporary policy but one which appears to fit much better with historical and contemporary evidence: prison through its daily workings systematically generates death.  Life in the prison place should be seen as a humiliating and unsafe experience perpetuating fear and loathing on a daily basis. Dividing prisoners between ‘copers’ and ‘non-copers’ provides only false assumptions about who may be suicide prone. Most prisoners only just about cope.  The real pains of imprisonment are not to be found in the given quality of living conditions, relationships with staff or levels of crowding, but in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away.  Deaths in prison should not be considered as aberrations or malfunctions of the system but rather located in the daily processes of imprisonment itself.


Adaptations to imprisonment are not a permanent state of affairs but open to erosion, meaning that even small changes in the prison world may reignite underlying difficulties a person has in coping with life inside. Coping mechanisms for everyone, irrespective of the numbers of prison officers or the extent of prisoner mental health problems, are tenuous. Coping and non-coping with prison life are matters of degree that fluctuate over time and all prisoners are vulnerable to suicidal ideation.  There is no let-up in the deadly harms generated by the prison place, but at certain points some prisoners (perhaps virtually all) feel they can no longer face them.


A suicide attempt may then be a frantic and desperate attempt to ‘solve problems of living’. If the response to this situation is hopeless and there is an explicit or implicit expectation that the individual will take their life, this negative communication may erode any sense of hope and facilitate a suicide attempt. SIDs then should be conceived as a social problem where those who take their own lives are responding to given temporal, spatial and emotional contexts of the prison place.


Beyond reform

We will not find a solution to the current problems of SID’s by employing more staff or updating failed policies of the past that focus on risk.  Indeed, the large number of different policies and procedures over the last 50 years indicate just how badly the Prison Service is failing to protect people in prison.


Interventions should be directed at helping people vulnerable to suicidal ideation to develop new meanings and alternative strategies that can help them take their lives forward. Central is the nurturing of hope and the prison is the very last place to try and do this.


The most rational solution then seems to be for the adoption of social policies that can provide immediate humanitarian support to people who are suicidal and the diversion away from prison for wrongdoers who are especially vulnerable to the development of suicidal ideation. Given the high numbers of both SIDs and prisoners with suicidal thoughts, this raises key questions regarding the use of imprisonment at all.