By Robert D. Canning, Ph.D., Senior Psychologist, Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, State of California
For the family, friends, and colleagues of an individual who dies by suicide while incarcerated, the loss can bring up feelings of intense sadness and frustration.
Prison and jail are stressful environments for the incarcerated individual and for their community “on the outside.” Often distant from home, with little direct contact, family and friends may have additional feelings of loss, grief, and – as if their loved one had died in a distant and foreign land. The routines of daily life in prison and jail are often perplexing and puzzling to those on the outside. The myriad rules and regulations don’t seem grounded in the reality of life outside (and often they are not). An inmate’s desperation and despair over small issues may seem trivial for family and friends outside, but “small issues” are often of primary importance to inmates.
The sense of loss may be multiplied when a loved one commits suicide in prison or jail. Communication with correctional personnel can be perceived as impersonal and uncaring. The overall lack of information about “what happened” can be frustrating. The simple act of regaining the personal effects of a loved one can be fraught with bureaucratic procedures and involve multiple phone calls, emails, or letters. For inmates with mental health problems, seeking information about the death may be masked by rules about release of information. All in all, prison walls often hide significant facts about a suicide that families may never learn about.
Additionally, suicide of an incarcerated loved one may exaggerate shame and stigma. No matter the circumstance or beliefs of the home community, suicide remains a terrible loss that incarceration often multiplies.
Survivors of prison suicide may find solace in contact with prison chaplains or with inmate support groups. Additionally, mental health professionals may help families and friends make sense of the loss of an incarcerated loved one.
Hayes, L.M. (2010). Toward a better understanding of suicide prevention in correctional settings. In Scott, C.L., Handbook of Correctional Mental Health. American Psychiatric Publishing. Washington, D.C. 2010.