Page last updated at 00:55 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Married inmates' suicide analysed

By Dominic Casciani
Home affairs reporter, BBC News

Prison doors
The prison population in England and Wales is currently at a record high

Being married makes you more likely to commit suicide in prison, according to an Oxford University study.

Researchers who looked at almost 4,800 cases from 12 countries also found that white males were more likely to take their own lives while in jail.

The findings contrast with research that shows suicide rates are higher among the single and divorced.

In 2007 more than 90 people killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales, up from 67 the year before.

Psychiatry researchers at Oxford looked at 34 studies of prison suicides, stretching back over 40 years and covering the deaths of 4,780 people.

The largest number of cases were from England and Wales, followed by the United States, European nations, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

92 killed themselves
Up from 67 in 2006
Seven deaths of under-21s
22 of 92 were on suicide watch
44% of prisoners were unsentenced
Figures for England and Wales; Sources: Ministry of Justice/Howard League for Penal Reform

Studies in the general population have consistently shown that marriage plays an important role in reducing the chances of someone taking their life.

But when the prison figures were analysed, the team found that the opposite was true. Those most likely to commit suicide in jail were white, male, married and working before they were convicted, the study concluded.

These prisoners had the most to lose and were likely to be the hardest hit by their sentence, the research suggests.

Another crucial element in the suicides could be the sudden loss of family support, previously offered by marriage.

Other risks already linked with prison suicide are mental health problems and alcoholism. Remand prisoners, life-sentence inmates and those in single cells also had an increased risk of suicide.

Dr Seena Fazel, who led the research, said: "Prison services should be aware of the risk factors we have found when screening those who come to prison.

"It is important to realise that the associations with suicide in prisoners do not appear to be the same as the associations in the general population.

"This may be to do with the experience of loss on being incarcerated - if you have more to lose, you are more at risk of suicide."

Suicides up

The number of suicides in prisons and England and Wales has been rising in recent years.

Reform groups have attributed the increase to ongoing jail overcrowding - but the Prison Service says that it has invested heavily in strategies to minimise suicides, including special arrangements when someone is first sent to a new jail.

Dr Fazel said overcrowding could affect the suicide rate above a certain threshold - but the association could be far more complex than realised.

"A lot of money has been spent on mental health services in prisons, and in England and Wales," he said.

"This study underlines that the value of such care and highlights the importance of strategies to look out for danger signs," says Dr Fazel.

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