Liveblog: Understanding and preventing suicide and self-harm in prison

Highlights from the 2016 autumn suicide prevention conference at Cambridge University

gonville caius college university of cambridge preventing suicide prison

Gonville and Caius College: Practitioners share strategies at Cambridge University to prevent suicide in prison. Photograph: Victoria Seabrook

Ways to prevent suicide in prison will be discussed by practitioners and experts at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, on 13 September. Follow us here for live updates.

15:30 That’s all for now

The conference ends with audience members discussing ideas and lessons learned from their own experience.

Conversation turns to the way staff can cope with prisoners in their care struggling with self-harm and suicide. A woman in the audience suggests the ‘oxygen mask’ analogy: “you put your own on first, then you can help others around you”.

We’re off. Tune in for our next liveblog coming soon.

14:28 Paul Holland, Suicide and self-harm project manager, NOMS

Key points from the talk by Mr Holland, who has a background as a prison governor:

      • Self inflicted deaths are up.
      • There is a long-term upward trend in male self-harm.
      • The decline in female self-harm has ceased.
      • “We only have one chance to break news to families, we have to do that in the best way possible.”
      • – we are planning to get this men’s mental health campaign going in prisons too.

14:15 Monitoring mental health

“We’ve come a long way when it comes to mental health. We have the royal family and former prime minister David Cameron talking about mental health.”

“We recognise the importance of the first 1,000 days of the child and its interaction with the parent. Their physical and mental development is very important early on.”

“We must get local people talking about prison and taking care of people inside prison as they would people outside of prison.”

13:56 Wearing it on the sleeve

A man who suffered from with self-harm in prison shares his experience with the audience.

“I wear a lot of my experiences literally on my sleeve,” he says.

“Life feels lonelier at night, and at night there’s less chance of someone coming to talk you out of it.”


13:30 Back for a panel discussion

Next up is a discussion from experts in the field. On the panel are:

  • Jane Moor, Acting Deputy Governor, HMP Boston Hall
  • Amy Ruskin, Prison officer, HMP Leicester
  • Jo Wood and Amy Beck, National Probation Service
  • Seamus Watson, Mental health lead, Health and Justice, Public Health England
  • Paul Holland and Rosie Rand, Suicide and self-harm project manager and head of safer custody and learning, NOMS.

12:30 Breaking for lunch

Here’s a summary of key points from this morning:

      • the types of people in prison already more likely to be at risk of suicide
      • good practice is about eliminating negative practices as well as promoting positive practices
      • safer custody is requires reduction in distress as well as creation of a nicer environment overall, not just reducing suicide figures
      • distress levels are a good indication of suicide risk
      • staff must be confident, have good relationships with management and provide support.

We’ll be back with you at 13:30. Tune in for a panel discussion with experts from NOMS, Public Health England, NPS and prisons from around the country.

12:25 Prison staff are important

Wrapping up, Liebling talks about staff’s role in preventing suicide. Relationships with management, work culture and climate, communication, suicide prevention effectiveness, role and responsibility – these things all affect how effective staff are, she says.

12:00 Feeling good in prison

11:50 Why prisoners attempt suicide – Professor Alison Liebling

      • Prisoners without external support, ability to read, confidence to go to the gym, are all in the ‘at risk’ group, says Professor Liebling.
      • ‘Protecting agents’ include visits and contact with family, constructive occupation in prison, support, good departmental cooperation in the prison, having hopes and plans for the future.

“When people self-harm, they are communicating. They’re saying ‘I’m bankrupt, help.’ The problem is when that is dismissed or not taken seriously.” – Professor Alison Liebling.

11:40 Women are less at risk of suicide in the community – Professor Alison Liebling

      • But in prison women are as at risk of suicide as men. There are two possible explanations:
        1. Women who come into prison are much more vulnerable to suicide than they are usually. “If male prisoners are selected to be at risk of suicide, this is trebly the case for women.”
        2. Women face special difficulties in prison, particularly concerning losing children, drug problems, and other extra emotional strains.
      • Living with inequality is physically and mentally bad for health, says Professor Liebling. “These structural reasons explain the high suicide risk in prison.”

11:00 Suicide and suicide prevention – Professor Alison Liebling

Prof. Liebling starts by asking why, when we now know far more about suicide in prison than in the 1980s, the problem is still just as acute.

“We know why we have suicide in prison, we know a lot about the explanation and increase. Let’s remember when I first got into researching suicide in prison in the 1980s – well we are about where we are today as we were then.” – Professor Alison Liebling

      • “The prison population is carefully selected from those already perfectly primed to be at risk of suicide.” The risk factors are: being male, having mental health and/or substance abuse problems, being unemployed or homeless.
      • We know we are heading for a bad year for prison suicides in 2016, she says. “The number of homicides is also set to increase.”
      • Best practice is not just about promoting positive practices, but extinguishing negative ones, says Liebling.
      • If staff assume that suicide and self harm are attention seeking behaviour, this tends to be a worrying sign of staff culture.

“There is an important link between offenders and people who just don’t want to live. People think offenders are just aggressive and selfish. Actually people who offend are miserable and full of complex emotions.” – Professor Alison Liebling

      • One way of thinking about reducing suicide in prison, would be to “organise everything in a way that helps people to flourish”.

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