Mindset on prisoner suicides has to change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am


A coroner's hearing into five recent jail deaths by suicide - four of them in the maximum-security Stanley Prison - served as a reminder that incarceration can be an emotional and physical ordeal, especially for vulnerable people. A finding that negligence and red tape hindered timely medical aid to inmates who hanged themselves made disturbing reading.

The purpose of a jail sentence is to rehabilitate prisoners so they can become law-abiding members of society once they have paid their debt to it. Doing everything possible to identify those at risk of self-harm, and taking positive measures to avoid it, is a prerequisite as well as a duty of care. The inquest jury's recommendations that patrol officers keep better records of prisoners, and ensure they are properly monitored during staff shift changes, that they be better trained in detecting suicides and open jail gates promptly for ambulances in emergencies would all be steps in the right direction, though they are more about responding to suicide attempts than tackling the root causes.

They clearly indicate that the jury saw room for improvement in the custodial performance of the Correctional Services Department. Ironically, however, it is the department's response that has better articulated the essence of its public duty of care for at-risk inmates: 'We will adopt ... all feasible procedures to... identify people who are emotionally unstable, physically unwell and suffer psychological distress to prevent suicide or self-destructive behaviour.'

That acknowledges that there is also room for a more proactive approach to its responsibilities for the welfare and safety of inmates at risk of self-harm. It should lose no time in spelling out what steps it is taking in this regard, especially in the case of prisoners with a background of suicide attempts and mental illness. Otherwise, the word 'feasible' will sound like an escape clause.

The fact that in one of the tragedies the ambulance team had to wait 10 minutes for prison officers to open the jail gates does not inspire confidence in the department's willingness to tackle shortcomings, given that an ambulance worker gave evidence that such delays were not exceptional.

That said, the department is to be commended for studying practical measures to make it more difficult for prisoners to attempt suicide. For example, there is to be a trial at the 74-year-old maximum security prison of cell windows without bars, which inmates often use when hanging themselves, before about 1,000 windows are replaced. They would have no protruding parts which could be used by prisoners to hang themselves. Unfortunately, there is no readily available substitute for inmates' bed sheets, which they often use to attempt suicide.

Suicide is a leading cause of death in jails. But overseas data on increased jail-suicide awareness shows that it is a public health problem that can be tackled. This calls for comprehensive prevention programmes that include in-depth risk assessment during the admission process as well as better staff training.

Once identified, at-risk inmates could also be more efficiently monitored and more safely managed if they were kept under centralised surveillance and not dispersed. Three of the Stanley suicides involved inmates left alone to cope with their demons in isolation cells.

The mindset that inmate suicides cannot be prevented is antiquated. It has no place in an advanced, enlightened society.