Preventing suicide and self-harm in prison is a key priority of the Department of Corrections. People in prison are known to be at a higher risk of suicide and self harm than the general population.
Corrections is making considerable efforts to minimise the risk of suicide in prisons, encouraging staff awareness training and active management of prisoners assessed as being at risk of self-harm.
Corrections initiatives are building on the work done by the 1995 Justice Department Review of Suicide Prevention in Prisons and the 1996 joint Department of Corrections and Te Puni Kokiri Maori Review Group report Reducing Suicide By Maori Prison Inmates.
A key strategy in reducing the number of prison suicides and other forms of self-harm is through integrated and effective prisoner management, including greater attention on prisoners identified as 'at risk', effective use of observation cells and staff training. This approach is vital in the quest to reduce the incidents of prisoner suicide and other forms of self-harm.
Corrections' sentence planning process assesses the individual needs of each prisoner through a comprehensive assessment process, which enables staff to place a prisoner in an appropriate group and provide the appropriate management for that prisoner while in prison.
Corrections has well-established and effective policies and procedures for when the death of a prisoner does occur, including death from suicide. Corrections also has policies and procedures to handle other incidents of prisoner self-harm.
Suicide and incidents of self-harm are serious and significant issues for Corrections, particularly given that the rate of suicide for people in prison is several times higher than in the general population.
The National Study of Psychiatric Morbidity in New Zealand Prisons, commissioned by Corrections in 1997 and published in 1999, found that in prisons there are higher rates for many mental disorders and illness, including suicide, than corresponding rates for the general population.
Examples of the findings include rates of 2-4 percent of prisoners with schizophrenia, 6-11 percent suffering from depression and that around one in five prisoners have frequent suicidal thoughts.
Statistics indicate that most suicides in prison are by men. The 1996 report Reducing Suicide by Maori Prison Inmates concluded that the groups most at risk of suicide are:
The report also found that two-thirds of prisoners who died from suicide did so within six months of being received into a prison. The majority of deaths are by hanging, and occur in the prisoner's cell.
Corrections has taken a number of actions to develop or enhance preventative measures to help reduce the rate of suicide and self-harm. These include:
The training and development of prison staff is important in reducing suicides and other incidents of self-harm in prisons because of the role staff have in identifying and managing at-risk prisoners.
The Public Prisons Service provides a six-week initial training course for new corrections officers, which includes a training module on suicide. There is also a two-day Suicide Prevention Awareness Training Programme to train staff to recognise when a prisoner is at risk of suicide or other forms of self-harm.
Effective assessment of a prisoner's risk of suicide or self-harm on arrival at prison is a critical part of managing at-risk prisoners and in reducing the number of incidents.
All prisoners are assessed on arrival at prison, which includes an assessment of their risk of self-harm. The New Arrival Risk Assessment form includes questions relating to suicide/self-harm.
Prison staff are also required to note any pre-reception information about the prisoner and any observations during the reception process that may give cause for concern. If a prisoner is identified as being at risk, he or she will go onto a special management regime until an appropriate support person can carry out a further assessment.
Following assessment by the appropriate support person, a treatment plan is developed that takes into account the individual needs of the prisoner. Prisoners are then placed in an appropriate environment with a targeted treatment regime to address their needs.
A separate at-risk file is established and maintained for each prisoner who has been identified at risk of self-harm. Each prisoner is re-assessed for their at-risk status at critical points during their time in custody or as their status, situation or location changes.
Observation cells provide an environment away from the main prison population where prisoners who are at risk of harming themselves can be monitored and managed according to their individual needs.
A management plan is developed by staff for at-risk prisoners to manage their care and target their specific needs. Staff involved in the preparation of the management plan can include medical, psychological, forensic, cultural, religious and security staff.
The management plan is developed in accordance with the prisoner's level of risk of self-harm and/or suicide and is reviewed regularly as the prisoner progresses and improves. For example, a prisoner at high risk is placed in an observation cell under camera surveillance and checked by staff at least every 15 minutes.
Corrections provides observation cells in every prison region as part of its strategy to minimise the occurrence of suicide and other forms of self-harm. About 160 such cells are currently available for use in New Zealand prisons.
Corrections has principal responsibility for investigating all deaths in custody, including suicides. Such investigations are carried out by an Inspector of Prisons, and are monitored by the Office of the Ombudsmen. The Office of the Ombudsmen can choose to carry out its own investigation. The Inspector is required to examine the extent to which Corrections' management of the deceased person complied with the applicable international covenants, legislation, operating policies and approved local instructions.
Reports of all death in custody investigations are provided to the Chief Executive and Corrections' Assurance Board. The Board is responsible for ensuring that custodial management policies, management systems, practices and internal controls comply with the applicable legislation and are adequate to ensure the safe, fair and humane custody of prisoners.
All deaths in custody are notified to the Police and are subject to a Coroner's inquest.
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