Prison suicides increasing in Sweden

While the number of suicides in Sweden has long been declining, the trend is reversed in prisons. More people in Swedish jails are committing suicide now than 15 years ago - often through hanging themselves from toilet doors.

Figures from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service show that 13 prisoners killed themselves in the first five years of the 1990s. But from 2000 to 2005, 23 prisoners committed suicide in Sweden.

From an average of two or three suicides per year, the number has increased to around five people a year, according to Swedish Radio.

Even taking into account the fact that the number of people incarcerated in Swedish prisons has risen from around 1,300 per day at the beginning of the 1990s to around 2,000 today, there has been a proportional rise.

But among the population has a whole, the suicide rate has fallen by 30% since 1990.

Ulf Åsgård, psychiatrist and suicide researcher, believes that the Prison Service should set up a commission of inquiry to look into the rise. Åsgåd previously worked at Kronoberg prison in Stockholm and noted ignorance around the subject.

“The prevailing attitude is that if people want to kill themselves then they will. That’s rubbish. Just as you would work to prevent accidents among children, there’s a lot that can be done to prevent suicides,” said Åsgård to TT.

The Prison Service’s director general Lars Nylén maintains that prison staff do prevent many suicides, although it is hard to measure.

But he acknowledges that there is more to do.

“Risk analysis and briefing between day and night staff could be better,” he told TT.

According to the Prison Service, the majority of those who are jailed are in the risk group for suicide. Drug abuse, personality disorders and social problems are common. Added to that is the trauma of being locked in a cell of 8-9 square metres, often for 23 hours per day.

In recent years the number of staff in jails has fallen. This can lead to delays in prisoners’ access to medically qualified staff, especially at night and at the weekends.

Research carried out by Swedish Radio’s Kaliber programme showed that at least 25 of the 60 prisoners who have committed suicide in the last 15 years have done so with the help of toilet or cupboard doors.

A number of jails have on their own initiative taken away the doors, but there has been no centralised decision.

“The information suggests that there is something wrong with the system. It ought to be easy to make doors you can’t hang yourself from,” said Ulf Åsgård.

However, Lars Nylén does not believe that all the risks can be eliminated.

“Clearly we can take away those which can be taken away, but if it’s not the doors then people will find another solution. We also have to think about the effect on tens of thousands of other prisoners,” he said.

TT/The Local