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Expert Comment: Suicides of prisoners in segregation

Prison 150x150 Thursday 11 June 2015
In light of a new report by The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Dr Esther van Ginneken, Lecturer in Criminology, calls for a reform of the practice of segregation in prisons.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) has recently raised concern about prisoners who killed themselves while they were held in segregation. In 2013/2014, eight prisoners took their lives in prison segregation units, which accounts for 9% of all self-inflicted deaths in prison for this year. This is an increase compared to previous years.

The report by the PPO highlights a number of serious points where care for these particular prisoners had failed. Yet, rather than simply avoiding lengthy periods of segregation and putting additional safeguards in place (as the report recommends), the practice of segregation in its current form is so inhumane that it needs to be reformed much more radically.

There is no central data on the use of segregation across prisons in England and Wales, which indicates a lack of oversight and accountability, but also prevents any systematic analysis of its effects. The practice of segregation takes different physical shapes and can be used for various purposes, including security, protection of vulnerable prisoners and punishment of prisoners who violate prison rules. Using the same space and regime for entirely different ends is fundamentally problematic.

While segregation is not necessarily equal to solitary confinement, the PPO notes that the prisoners in segregation usually spend most of their time alone in their cells, with few distractions (sometimes without any furniture or bedding). It is well-known from the prison research literature that such conditions are associated with diminished well-being and a greater risk of suicide. It is unlikely that the PPO’s recommendation to provide prisoners with a book and radio will do much to improve their coping. Neither protection nor punishment should lead to the exclusion from meaningful activities, a humane environment and social interaction, which are all important elements of well-being and preparation for release.      

The use of segregation as a punishment ignores the underlying problems that often contribute to problem behaviour. Misconduct may result from an inability to cope with imprisonment or be an expression of a prisoner’s concern about, for example, problems with family, debts or peers. An authoritarian response like segregating and isolating the prisoner is likely to have a counterproductive effect. There are examples of prisons that manage to maintain order and safety without the use of solitary-style segregation units, but unfortunately segregation remains the default response to challenging behaviour.

Finally, many of the issues noted in the PPO report are symptomatic of problems facing the prison system as a whole. Suicides should not be blamed on inadequate procedures and staff responses, but on an overburdened system that is not fit for purpose to begin with. Prisoner misconduct and mental health problems can be much more effectively addressed by reducing pressure on the system, providing all prisoners with meaningful activities, and by giving prison staff better training and support. Imprisonment, like segregation, should not be the default response it currently is. 

Dr Esther van Ginneken - full profile 

Department of Social Science at Liverpool Hope

Criminology at Liverpool Hope 

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