The Alarming Rate of Suicide in Prisons: Risk Factors and More

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The Alarming Rate of Suicide in Prisons: Risk Factors and More

Why the Suicide Rate is High Among Prisoners

Suicide rates in prisons are significantly high; in fact, suicide is the #1 cause of death for prisoners in the United States.

To understand the prevalence of suicides in prison, it’s important to look at the ‘risk factors’ – these are circumstances within a prisoner’s life that, as suggested by data, may increase the likelihood that they could attempt suicide. These are either based on the prisoner’s history or their circumstances while incarcerated.

Learn about these risk factors below. 

General Info About Prison Suicide Rates

Just how high are prison suicide rates, exactly?

This recent study from a public health journal looked into the phenomenon, and its findings were telling.

The study, which looked at data from 24 “high-income countries” between 2013 and 2017, found that suicide rates were much higher among prisoners than among the general population. Male prisoners were 3-8 times more likely to die by suicide than those in the general population, while female prisoner rates were more than 10 times higher.

The same study identified many risk factors, or circumstances that could point to the frequency of this problem. Read more about these below.

Risk Factors 

Family History of Suicide

Suicidal idealation can often be found amongst those with a family history of it. This is true both for the incarcerated and the rest of the population.

In fact, a Danish study compared over 4,000 people who had committed suicide to over 80,000 who had not – it found that those who had a parent or sibling die from suicide were two and a half times more likely to fall in the group that had committed suicide than the latter group.

History of Attempted Suicide 

The public health journal’s study found that a record of past suicide attempts is one of the most notable risk factors for suicide among prisoners. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for those who have survived attempts to either try again, or relapse if they have made progress recovering from their suicidal idealation. 

Unemployment Before Incarceration

Material conditions are often cited as relevant to individual mental health crises and suicide attempts among prisoners. Unemployment before incarceration is one of these conditions.  

Outside of prisons, researchers have been carefully exploring the connection between unemployment and suicide rates. Specifically, job loss during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a topic on researchers’ minds over the last year.


Not every incarcerated person has a home to return to upon finishing their sentence. Research suggests that up to 15% of prisoners are homeless at some point within the year leading up to the beginning of their term. Homelessness is a notable risk factor for suicide.

Mental Illness 

There are a lot of misconceptions about how mental health is monitored in the framework of the prison system. Many mistakenly think that if a prisoner is found to have a mental health condition or illness, they will be taken to a rehabilitation centre in place of their prison sentence. This is not usually the case – in fact, the American Psychological Association reports that in the U.S., 64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners,and 45 percent of federal prisoners have reported mental health concerns. 

Substance Dependency

Addiction and dependency are also notable risk factors for suicide in prisons. The link between substance use and incarceration is something that has long been studied and analyzed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research suggests that 65% of the population in U.S. prisons may struggle with a substance use disorder.

Poor Social Support 

Experts say that community is important for mental health recovery. But behind bars, prisoners are not always able to foster the community they need to achieve positive mental health. This may be why poor social support is often cited as a risk factor for suicide in prisons.

Solitary Confinement

Prisoners who have been placed in solitary confinement have a significantly increased risk of attempting suicide: one 2020 report found that the rate of suicides from 2015 to 2019 was five times higher among those in solitary confinement than among other prisoners.

What Happens When Someone Is on Suicide Watch?

If a prisoner is believed to be suicidal, prisons may choose to revoke the prisoner’s uniform and give them suicide prevention gear instead. This gear is manufactured to be difficult to use in a suicide attempt – for example, it cannot be torn into a rope. 

There are anti-suicide shirts, pants, smocks, furniture, and even hooks for cells. Prisons use these materials to create an environment that limits the possible of suicide for those in cells.


Ultimately, the suicide rate among the incarcerated is alarming – and deeply complex. By understanding what possible circumstance could be linked to these suicide attempts, a more accurate picture of this mental health crisis is created.