It is no coincidence that the suicide rate in Irish prisons has tracked levels of overcrowding. There were seven suicides in Irish jails in 2007 and 11 in 2008, the worst year on record, but since then there have been signs of a decline.
From 2009 to date, there have been an estimated 13 prison suicides, with a further 22 deaths in custody. Figures are contested as coroners have sometimes refrained from returning suicide verdicts for legal reasons.
Health professionals say reductions in overcrowding over the past 18 months has helped (the prison population reached a peak of 5,000 in 2011), along with targeted measures such as improving suicide-watch protocols, reducing periods of solitary confinement in padded cells and investing in court diversion and high-support ser- vices for prisoners with mental illness.
Compared to the general population, however, rates of suicide and self-harm remain high.
A study by the National Suicide Research Foundation estimated a rate of parasuicide (or "attempted suicide") in the prison population of 3,438 per 100,000. Although it warned against direct comparisons, as this figure was not age-adjusted, it stood against a rate of 202 per 100,000 in the general population. *
The Irish suicide rate, moreover, is about twice that in English prisons and almost equal to that in Scottish prisons, something attributed to the increased prevalence of heroin-use in both Scotland and Ireland.
A further initiative credited with helping to drive down rates of suicide in custody has been the introduction of a prisoners-run, Samaritans "listener" service. The scheme was established in Britain in 1991 after a boy (15) took his life while on remand at HMP Swansea. It has since spread to 134 other prisons in Britain, three in Northern Ireland, and six in the Republic.
"We're in Arbour Hill, Cloverhill, Mountjoy, the Training Unit, Wheatfied and Dóchas and we are starting to look at Cork and Loughin House," says Orla McCaffrey, a Samaritans volunteer who oversees the scheme in the Republic and in the UK.
"In England and Wales, you have different problems," she adds. "People get moved a lot between prisons and that impacts on contacts with families." Irish prisons benefit from higher staff ratios and also an "informality in relationships", which makes it easier to circumvent bureaucracy.
For the listeners scheme to work, a high level of trust needs to be built up with the authorities and the inmates.
“The grapevine in a prison is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. People know things before they happen. So trust is everything. People need to know if they speak to someone in confidence it stays that way.”
Because they have to undergo periods of training and supervision, listeners are selected from the pool of longer-term prisoners and are often lifers. “The nature of the offence is something we never ask,” McCaffrey says, “and we look for people who are not judgmental.”
The sort of issues which trigger crises range from feelings of guilt – often heightened at family or imprisonment anniversaries – to fallings-out with a cellmate. “People in prison are generally tough and perception is very important. We try to tell people it’s okay to talk about it; you don’t have to be a tough guy all the time.”
*This article was amended on Thursday, September 19th, 2013