Confinement Shock and Suicides Behind Bars

A lot goes into preserving one’s mental health. If someone is struggling with mental illness, whether it’s depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder or any of the number of debilitating mental health disorders that plague society, the main goal of treatment is to keep them safe and help them cope with the issues that are weighing them down. Without adequate treatment, any number of outcomes are possible, almost all of which are absolutely devastating. Suicide, of course, is an often-avoidable outcome of a horrible mental illness that goes untreated or mistreated for too long.

With the walls of prisons, suicide is far too common. According to NPR, about 1,000 people die in US jails each year. Roughly one-third–or a little over 300–are suicides.

So why are suicides within prison walls so common? Part of it is easy to understand–inmates of prisons have been handed down sentences that range from a few months to multiple life-sentences. These are people who have potentially given up the opportunity at ever having a life of freedom again. Often, they’ve committed crimes that sully their reputations both inside and outside of prisons. If these people are also suffering from untreated or undiagnosed depression, sometimes taking their lives seems like the only way out.

Unfortunately, prison and jail inmates sometimes do not receive adequate treatment for their mental and emotional needs and wind up hurting others or themselves. This sense of helplessness after a conviction and sentencing can mentally drain an inmate.

Interestingly, though. after conviction, suicide rates actually drop. While about 46 out of every 100,000 jail inmates wind up taking their own lives, only about 15 in every 100,000 prison inmates meet the same fate. County jails actually have the highest suicide rates in the country, likely due to what’s called “shock of confinement”–the fact that jail stays are often the first time a person has their rights stripped from them. This shock can lead to thoughts and actions of suicide.

Preventing suicide is another difficult action for those who work in prisons to undertake. Screening procedures are in place when new inmates are admitted to prisons and jails, but screening can, and sometimes does not, catch everything. Even more so, treatment options aren’t always perfect, and with prison inmates and the severely mentally ill, there is much less wiggle room involved.  

Though treatments have evolved over time, suicide watch exists and precautions are taken to minimize the risk of suicide within prison walls, it is an unavoidable and far too common scenario nonetheless. Programs like therapy sessions, pet therapy, gardening and many, many more are able to help relieve stress in inmates, but stress relief can only go so far when the burden of depression is weighing one down. As we continue to move forward with the way we recognize, diagnose and treat mental illness, we hope to see similar improvements in the lives and well beings of prison and jail inmates around the world.