Risk Factors

Many factors have been identified that influence an inmate's motivation to commit suicide, and these factors are related either to the circumstances of imprisonment or to the personal history of the inmate. Factors relating to circumstances of imprisonment include:

the view of incarceration as a punishment and disgrace;
denial of membership in decent, law-abiding society;
loss of control over life;
loss of privacy;
loss of family and friends;
concern over a transfer, appeal, or parole decision;
the closed social system of the prison (for example, the "cons" versus the authorities); and
an atmosphere of violence, fear and distrust (Correctional Services Canada, 1994; National Task Force, 1987).

The characteristics frequently evident in the personal histories of the inmates included:

deprived family background typified by abuse and/or criminality;
history of violence;
distress about a financial problem;
a history of psychiatric treatment, hospitalization or outpatient;
current physical or mental health problems; and
drug and/or alcohol abuse (Correctional Services Canada, 1994; Conacher, 1993; National Task Force, 1987).

There are further factors which researchers have found which can contribute to the suicidal behaviour of inmates. Inmates are more likely to commit suicide in the relatively early stages of custody, mostly in the first three months, and approximately half of all suicides in prison occur during the first 6 months of the sentence (Task Force on Suicide in Canada, 1994, p. 27). Alcohol and drug use plays a role in suicide. In 1993-94, alcohol and/or drugs were "confirmed or suspected" of being involved in half of inmate suicide cases (Laishes, 1994, p. 14). Also, the vast majority of inmates who commit suicide have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. One study found that as many as two-thirds of individuals have a history of alcohol abuse, and 54% a history of drug abuse (Task Force on Suicide in Canada, 1994, p. 27).

Being placed in isolation or dissociation units has also been shown to increase the risk of suicide. Isolation can increase the likelihood of suicide by altering an inmate's mental state. Inmates are unable to communicate and release their suicidal feelings to others, and this intensifies their feelings.