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Suicide in prisons: an international study of prevalence and contributory factors

  , MD, , MSc , FMedSci

The lancet. Psychiatry

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      Prison suicide rates, rate ratios, and associations with prison-related factors need clarification and updating. We examined prison suicide rates in countries where reliable information was available, associations with a range of prison-service and health-service related factors, how these rates compared with the general population, and changes over the past decade.


      We collected data for prison suicides in 24 high-income countries in Europe, Australasia, and North America from their prison administrations for 2011–14 to calculate suicide rates and rate ratios compared with the general population. We used meta-regression to test associations with general population suicide rates, incarceration rates, and prison-related factors (overcrowding, ratio of prisoners to prison officers or health-care staff or education staff, daily spend, turnover, and imprisonment duration). We also examined temporal trends.


      3906 prison suicides occurred during 2011–14 in the 24 high-income countries we studied. Where there was breakdown by sex (n=2810), 2607 (93%) were in men and 203 (7%) were in women. Nordic countries had the highest prison suicide rates of more than 100 suicides per 100 000 prisoners apart from Denmark (where it was 91 per 100 000), followed by western Europe where prison suicide rates in France and Belgium were more than 100 per 100 000 prisoners. Australasian and North American countries had rates ranging from 23 to 67 suicides per 100 000 prisoners. Rate ratios, or rates compared with those in the general population of the same sex and similar age, were typically higher than 3 in men and 9 in women. Higher incarceration rates were associated with lower prison suicide rates (b = –0·504, p = 0·014), which was attenuated when adjusting for prison-level variables. There were no associations between rates of prison suicide and general population suicide, any other tested prison-related factors, or differing criteria for defining suicide deaths. Changes in prison suicide rates over the past decade vary widely between countries.


      Many countries in northern and western Europe have prison suicide rates of more than 100 per 100 000 prisoners per year. Individual-level information about prisoner health is required to understand the substantial variations reported and changes over time.


      Wellcome Trust and the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

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      Prison suicide in 12 countries: an ecological study of 861 suicides during 2003-2007.

      Although suicide rates among prisoners are high and vary between countries, it is uncertain whether this reflects the importation of risk from the general population or is associated with incarceration rates.
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        Self-harm in prisons in England and Wales: an epidemiological study of prevalence, risk factors, clustering, and subsequent suicide

        Summary Background Self-harm and suicide are common in prisoners, yet robust information on the full extent and characteristics of people at risk of self-harm is scant. Furthermore, understanding how frequently self-harm is followed by suicide, and in which prisoners this progression is most likely to happen, is important. We did a case-control study of all prisoners in England and Wales to ascertain the prevalence of self-harm in this population, associated risk factors, clustering effects, and risk of subsequent suicide after self-harm. Methods Records of self-harm incidents in all prisons in England and Wales were gathered routinely between January, 2004, and December, 2009. We did a case-control comparison of prisoners who self-harmed and those who did not between January, 2006, and December, 2009. We also used a Bayesian approach to look at clustering of people who self-harmed. Prisoners who self-harmed and subsequently died by suicide in prison were compared with other inmates who self-harmed. Findings 139 195 self-harm incidents were recorded in 26 510 individual prisoners between 2004 and 2009; 5–6% of male prisoners and 20–24% of female inmates self-harmed every year. Self-harm rates were more than ten times higher in female prisoners than in male inmates. Repetition of self-harm was common, particularly in women and teenage girls, in whom a subgroup of 102 prisoners accounted for 17 307 episodes. In both sexes, self-harm was associated with younger age, white ethnic origin, prison type, and a life sentence or being unsentenced; in female inmates, committing a violent offence against an individual was also a factor. Substantial evidence was noted of clustering in time and location of prisoners who self-harmed (adjusted intra-class correlation 0·15, 95% CI 0·11–0·18). 109 subsequent suicides in prison were reported in individuals who self-harmed; the risk was higher in those who self-harmed than in the general prison population, and more than half the deaths occurred within a month of self-harm. Risk factors for suicide after self-harm in male prisoners were older age and a previous self-harm incident of high or moderate lethality; in female inmates, a history of more than five self-harm incidents within a year was associated with subsequent suicide. Interpretation The burden of self-harm in prisoners is substantial, particularly in women. Self-harm in prison is associated with subsequent suicide in this setting. Prevention and treatment of self-harm in prisoners is an essential component of suicide prevention in prisons. Funding Wellcome Trust, National Institute for Health Research, National Offender Management Service, and Department of Health.
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          Suicide in prisoners: a systematic review of risk factors.

          To examine factors associated with suicide in prisoners. Studies were identified through electronic searches of MEDLINE (1950-February 2007), PsycINFO (1806-February 2007), EMBASE (1974-February 2007), and CINAHL (1982-February 2007) without language restriction using the search terms prison, jail, felon, detainee, penal, and custody combined with suicide. Included studies were investigations that reported on prisoners dying by suicide who were compared with prisoners in control groups (which were randomly selected or matched, or consisted of the total or average prison population). Subgroup analysis and meta-regression were used to explore sources of heterogeneity. Thirty-four studies (comprising 4780 cases of prison suicide) were identified for inclusion in the review, of which 12 were based in the United States. Demographic factors associated with suicide included white race/ethnicity (OR = 1.9, 95% CI = 1.7 to 2.2), being male (OR = 1.9, 95% CI = 1.4 to 2.5), and being married (OR = 1.5, 95% CI = 1.3 to 1.7). Criminological factors included occupation of a single cell (OR = 9.1, 95% CI = 6.1 to 13.5), detainee/remand status (OR = 4.1, 95% CI = 3.5 to 4.8), and serving a life sentence (OR = 3.9, 95% CI = 1.1 to 13.3). Clinical factors were recent suicidal ideation (OR = 15.2, 95% CI = 8.5 to 27.2), history of attempted suicide (OR = 8.4, 95% CI =6.2 to 11.4), having a current psychiatric diagnosis (OR = 5.9, 95% CI = 2.3 to 15.4), receiving psychotropic medication (OR = 4.2, 95% CI = 2.9 to 6.0), and having a history of alcohol use problems (OR = 3.0, 95% CI = 1.9 to 4.6). Black race/ethnicity was inversely associated with suicide (OR = 0.4, 95% CI = 0.3 to 0.4). Few differences were found in risk estimates when compared by study design or publication type. Several demographic, criminological, and clinical factors were found to be associated with suicide in prisoners, the most important being occupation of a single cell, recent suicidal ideation, a history of attempted suicide, and having a psychiatric diagnosis or history of alcohol use problems. As some of these associations included potentially modifiable environmental and clinical factors, there is scope for targeting these factors in suicide prevention strategies for individuals in custody. Copyright 2008 Physicians Postgraduate Press, Inc.

            Author and article information

            Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
            Centre for Suicide Research, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
            Author notes
            Correspondence to: Prof Seena Fazel, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Warneford Hospital, Oxford, UK seena.fazel@
            Centre for Suicide Research, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
            Lancet Psychiatry
            Lancet Psychiatry
            The lancet. Psychiatry
            25 July 2018
            December 2017
            30 July 2018
            : 4
            : 12
            : 946-952
            29179937 6066090 10.1016/S2215-0366(17)30430-3 EMS78777

            This is an Open Access article under the CC BY 4.0 license (



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