Dozens of prisoners killing themselves behind bars

Dozens of prisoners killing themselves behind bars

Dozens of prisoners have killed themselves while in custody over the past five years, according to figures released by Corrections.

During the same period, there were almost 100 suicide attempts behind bars. That figure is likely to rise, as a number of incidents for the 2014/15 year are still being investigated by the coroner.

RadioLIVE requested figures from Corrections after being approached by a prisoner who was concerned about the way his suicide attempt had been handled by the department.

Suicides in custody

Over the past five financial years there have been 35 unnatural deaths in custody, which include murders and suicides. The deaths were spread among 14 prisons. The only facilities not to record any unnatural deaths for the period were Arohata Prison, Auckland Region Women's Prison, Rolleston Prison and Tongariro/Rangipo Prison.

Seven out of the 35 deaths – or 20 percent – were at Christchurch Men's Prison. There were five deaths at Rimutaka Prison, and three each at Auckland Prison, Northland Region Corrections Facility, Waikeria Prison and Whanganui Prison.

Despite recent public concerns about the Mt Eden Corrections Facility, there has only been one unnatural death registered there since British company Serco took over management. However, there has been at least one other suicide at the facility that is still under investigation.

By comparison, there were 56 natural deaths in custody over the five-year period.

Nearly 100 suicide attempts

There were an even higher number of suicide attempts during the same five years.

They were recorded by the Department of Corrections as incidents of self-harm, threat to life. It defines such incidents as an "intentional act of harm to oneself which would most probably have led to death if there was no immediate intervention".

During the past five financial years there have been 88 recorded suicide attempts behind bars. That number will increase as incidents from the 2014/15 year are investigated. At May 31, 2015, only two incidents from that period had been confirmed as suicide attempts. By comparison, there were 19 suicide attempts the previous year.

Hawke's Bay Regional Prison has the worst record, registering 13 suicide attempts over the five years. That's followed by 11 suicide attempts at Auckland Prison, and eight each at Christchurch Men's Prison, Christchurch Women's Prison and Waikeria Prison. Only four facilities registered zero suicide attempts. They were Invercargill Prison, Rolleston Prison, Tongariro/Rangipo Prison and Wellington Prison.

There have been five suicide attempts at the Mt Eden Corrections Facility, although several other incidents at the Serco-run facility remain under investigation.

Corrections responds

In documents released to RadioLIVE, Corrections National Commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot insists his department is doing everything it can to prevent suicides behind bars.

"The Department is committed to preventing unnatural deaths and life-threatening incidents of self-harm in prisons," he says.

"Prisoners have a higher risk of mental health disorder and illnesses than the general population. In order to understand and address a prisoner's medical condition, we conduct health screenings when a prisoner is received into prison and when they are transferred into prisons."

Mr Lightfoot says any prisoners who are identified as being at-risk are referred back to the prison health centre where they receive a Package of Care.

"The content of the packages include education about healthy lifestyles, mental illness, medications, recovery and resilience, advice and support about mental health wellbeing, problem-solving strategies, solution-focused therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy."

But he concedes the department will never be able to completely prevent suicides.

"Despite our efforts to reduce suicide and self-harm in prison it is incredibly difficult to stop someone who is determined to harm themselves."