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Europe's prisoner suicide problem

Lewis Sanders IV
October 13, 2016

Europe has one of the highest rates of prisoner suicides compared to other regions, according to the WHO. Prison reform advocates have called for alternative solutions for tackling the harrowing phenomenon.

A man looking out the window at a prison in Freiburg
Image: picture alliance / dpa

While questions over security and personal well-being have emerged in the wake of the Chemnitz explosives suspect Jafer Albakr's death, figures show that prisoner suicides happen far too often.

In Germany, the phenomenon has witnessed a decline over the past 15 years, with 117 in 2000 dropping to 50 in 2013, reported a study by the country's suicide prevention program.

However, Germany's suicide rate in prison remains higher than Europe's average, comprising 41 percent of all deaths in detention, according to annual penal statistics published by the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body.

High suicide rates among prisoners are not solely an issue in Germany, but encompass all of Europe, accounting for more than 21 percent of all deaths in prison in 2013.

The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggested in 2014 that suicide among prisoners appeared more frequently in Europe than other geographical regions, averaging 62 suicides per 100,000.

In England and Wales, suicides comprised more than one-third of the number of deaths in British penal institutions, marking a 25-year peak earlier this year.

Johannes Lohner, professor of clinical psychology at Germany's Landshut University of Applied Sciences, told DW that while the risk of suicide is higher in prisons, it becomes markedly lower following pre-trial detention.

"We have a much higher risk of suicide in pre-trial detention, especially in the first 24 to 48 hours in custody. If you look at the statistics, the risk at the beginning is quite large and then drops rapidly. In the prison system, the likelihood of someone taking their life is significantly lower statistically," Lohner said.

Official figures show that roughly one-third of prisoner suicides occur during pre-trial detention in Europe.

Mental health issues

Catherine Heard, director of the World Prison Research Program at the London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), told DW that prison suicide remains a "major issue in some European states, and in many other regions of the world."

"Prisoners are at far greater risk of suicide than the rest of the population," Heard said.

"A number of factors can contribute to prisoners' risk of suicide and make the risk far greater than that in the general population: high proportions of prisoners suffer from mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, addiction problems and personality disorders," she added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that 80 percent of female prisoners suffer from an "identifiable mental illness," posing a greater risk for suicide during their detention.

"Women in prison are more likely to have mental health problems than both the general population and male prisoners, including high rates of post-traumatic stress disorders," the WHO said. "Female prisoners are more likely to harm themselves and commit suicide than male prisoners, while suicide is more common among men outside prison."

However, Germany has experienced the opposite trend, with women prisoners comprising less than 2 percent of suicides in prison, according to figures published by the Council of Europe.

"Meeting the specific needs of prisoners with these underlying problems and vulnerabilities, and protecting them form the risk of self-harm or suicide, requires resources and expertise unlikely to be available in the prison setting," said Heard.

"That is all the more so when prisons are overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced, as is the case in much of the world today," she added.

'Essential precondition'

In a 2015 report, the London-based Penal Reform International has called on prison authorities to effectively tackle prison suicides by addressing the key factors that contribute to the fatal occurrences.

"The performance of prison health systems should be assessed against the right to health as enshrined in international human rights law and against standards of medical ethics, including full independence of prison health staff from prison authorities," PRI said.

IPCR's World Prison Brief has documented an "exponential rise" in the use of imprisonment as a means of justice across the globe.

"Of the 10 to 11 million people who are in prison globally, the vast majority cannot be described as 'dangerous,' but a great many of them are vulnerable to mental and physical ill health, major contributors to suicide risk," Heard said.

"An essential precondition for humane and effective management of vulnerability in prisons is a major reduction in overall prisoner numbers," she noted.