Nearly one in two deaths in French prisons is a suicide. Between 2005 and 2010, the annual rate averaged 18.5 suicides per 10,000 prisoners. This is seven times higher than the suicide rate among men aged 15-59, the group most similar to the French prison population in terms of sex and age characteristics.
What makes inmates vulnerable to suicide? We analysed data from the French national prisoner management database (GIDE) comprising 363,525 prison stays and 377 suicides occurring from 1 January, 2006 to 15 July, 2009. Using bivariate and multivariate analyses, our study identified the following conditions of incarceration and inmate characteristics as indicators of a higher risk for committing suicide:
• Pre-trial detention
Regardless of age, sex, nature of the offence and other characteristics, suicide is twice as common among pre-trial detainees, who are strongly affected by the shock of incarceration and the stress of uncertainty surrounding the outcome of their case. Although persons officially under investigation are presumed innocent by law, they can still be remanded in custody, either as a security measure or for reasons connected to the criminal investigation. Approximately 34 suicides per 10,000 were registered for these detainees, versus nearly 13 per 10,000 among convicted offenders.
• Placement in a disciplinary cell
Prisoners placed in a disciplinary cell have a 15 times higher suicide risk compared with those in ordinary prison cells. Being placed in solitary confinement – the punishment for breaching prison regulations – may indicate that an inmate is having difficulty adapting to the prison environment. Although periods spent in disciplinary cells are usually quite short (less than 1% of total detention time), these increase vulnerability through isolation.
• Loss of contact with family and friends
Suicide risk is 2.5 higher for inmates who have not received a recent visit from a loved one than for those who have. This reflects the importance of personal ties, which are often broken by imprisonment or, earlier, by the offence that led to detention.
• Gravity of the offence
Suicide rates are particularly high for persons imprisoned for or on suspicion of murder (48 per 10,000 inmates), rape (27 per 10,000) or other sexual offences (24 per 10,000). In addition to the heavy sentences incurred by such offences, other factors may increase suicide risk among this group: the offence itself, remorse about the act committed or a feeling of injustice at being imprisoned, and in the case of crimes strongly condemned by other inmates, ostracism within the prison itself.
• Hospital stays
Suicide risk is higher among persons who have recently stayed in hospital than among other prisoners (1.7 to 1). The data studied do not provide reasons for hospitalization, but in some cases hospitalization may have been linked to mental health problems. The medical information needed to complete this part of the study was not available.
The data cannot be used to assess any potential relationship between suicide and prison overcrowding, and such a link has not been shown elsewhere. The number of inmates in French prisons rose sharply in the second half of the twentieth century, from under 20,000 in 1955 to 62,000 in 2010. With 113 inmates for 100 places in the early 2010s, overcrowding is an ongoing problem in French prisons. But the connection between overcrowding and suicide risk is complex, because at the individual level, having a cellmate may reduce feelings of isolation or simply make it materially harder to do the deed.
Géraldine Duthé, Angélique Hazard and Annie Kensey (2014), “Trends and risk factors for prisoner suicide in France”, Population, English Edition, 69(4), pp. 463-494.