Suicides are not surprising in overcrowded, depressing jails where inmates "near the edge" are locked up for 20 hours a day. The destabilizing effect of sensory deprivation produced by primitive sanitation, harsh regimes, dull low-paid work and limited social support, may make suicide a fairly appropriate reaction.
Prisoners usually suicide by hanging themselves. In UK the number of prison suicides averaged less than 20 a year until 1986, when the prison population drastically increased. The figures rose to almost 50 in 1987, fell to about 33 in 1988, and rose to 48 in 1989. The prison suicide rate was four times that for the rest of the population by 1989. 50% of suicides are amongst remand prisoners. Isolation, fear of a long sentence and institutional harassment, inability to cope with the prison regime, and lack of communication, are the most common forces which tip a prisoner into suicide. At greatest risk are newly-convicted, emotionally unstable or young people whose lives are obviously in a mess and who have limited personal resources to cope with the self-mortification and confusion that arises. Members of ethnic and other minorities, and prisoners with life sentences are also at greater risk.
Suicidal prisoner need people to talk to them and to care for them. They usually have a history of psychiatric imbalance or display warning signs in their behaviour. Medical, hospital and probation staff should be involved in an interdisciplinary group treatment system for inmates. The quality of a suicidal inmate's contact with the outside world is also likely to be a crucial factor in his or her recovery, and on e which will on occasion justify giving the inmate special treatment.
Prison officers cannot hope to eliminate suicide totally, any more than it can be prevented in the outside world. Prison inmates are much more likely to exhibit characteristics which are known to give rise to suicide risk. However it is impossible to keep every prisoner under surveillance, even if this were desirable.