Interview with a Samaritan volunteer: the death toll in prison is horrendous

What it’s like talking to prisoners on the verge of committing suicide



Paul Jackson, a retired businessmen, spends a lot of time talking with prisoners. The only topic he never asks about is the crimes they committed.

Paul is a volunteer for Samaritans, a group that over the last 60 years has been providing support to those in despair or with suicidal thoughts by speaking with them on the phone or in person.

He believes the death toll in prison is terrifying and is “a real tragedy.”

“In the 1980s there was a sharp rise in the number of deaths in prison,” Paul said. “The death toll was twice as many people as in car accidents, and most of those people were men under 50. It was horrendous. One life is horrible but when so many people die it is a significant issue.”

But now the situation is not much better. According to the latest Ministry of Justice statistics, at least 82 people took their own lives in prison last year. It is the highest rate in prisons for nine years, the Guardian argued last October.


A prison phone call every six seconds

Paul said that every six seconds Samaritans get a phone call from prison. 

Working in the group’s Soho branch which is responsible for Holloway prison and Brixton prison, Paul said the main purpose is to let people talk.

“We don’t give any advice,” he said.

But despite the fact that it is important to just listen to a prisoner, Paul said he must always be prepared for unexpected.

“If a prisoner calls you and says he hears voices in the night, you need to know how to act,” he said.

Paul could not elaborate on the matter of his conversations with prisoners since all calls are confidential.

He says his job is not as difficult as of those who work directly in prison. He said that the group selects a number of prisoners who act as Samaritans for their fellow inmates.

They are trained like volunteers outside prison and learn to listen to prisoners, ask them open questions and act out scenarios. Paul said while he dose three shifts a month, those people must be available 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

“[What we do] is a very emotive area,” he said. “It’s very difficult to do that from outside, but inside pressure is much higher.”

When asked why he decided to take such responsibility, Paul said that while working long hours in business he always had “on the back of my mind” a desire to help people “but never had time for that.”

“When I retired, I just felt that I finally have time to give something back to society,” he said.


More about Samaritans

  • Samaritans is not a religious organisation and got its name accidentally when someone called the group of volunteers helping people with mental health problems “good Samaritans.”
  • The group was launched in 1953 but it started to work with prisoners in 1991. The first prison in which the group established its services was Swansea Prison.
  • There are more than 20,000 volunteers working for the group
  • In 2008, the number of self-inflicted deaths fell substantially and stabilised, with about 60 deaths a year. But in 2013, it went up sharply.
  • The deaths in prison may be the “direct result of the cuts to the number of [prison] staff,” according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.
  • Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, said in his last year’s report that reasons for the growing number of suicides in prison are different in every case. “However, as reports from the prisons and probation ombudsman and coroners make clear, bullying is a factor in many cases,” he added.


If you or someone you know in prison is having difficulties, Samaritans can be reached on 08457 90 90 90 or emailed at

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