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Suicide rates in prisoners are considerably higher than in the general population, both in the United States and the United Kingdom and internationally. In the United States, the rate of suicide in jails is estimated to be 8 times higher than in the general population, and in England and Wales, the age-standardized rate of suicide among all male prisoners is 5 times higher than in the general population - a proportionate excess that has been increasing since 1978. In addition, these rates remain high after leaving prison - a recent study of all inmates released in 1 U.S state found an increased suicide risk 3- to 4- fold higher than in the general population after adjustment for age, sex, and race.

Prevention of suicide in prisoners is highlighted in the United States’ National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, and it is a key component of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England.  An important aspect of these strategies is detection of those at highest risk. It may not be possible to generalize from suicide research in the general population: specific risk factors may apply in prisoners, as they do for natural-cause mortality in male prisoners and pregnancy outcomes in female prisoners.

Data Sources: Studies were identified through electronic searches of MEDLINE (1950-February 2007), PsycINFO (1806-February 2007), EMBASE (1974-February 2007), and CINAHL (1982-February 2007) without language restriction using the search terms prison, jail, felon, detainee, penal, and custody combined with suicide.

Study Selection: Included studies were investigations that reported on prisoners dying by suicide who were compared with prisoners in control groups (which were randomly selected or matched, or consisted of the total or average prison population). Subgroup analysis and meta-regression were used to explore sources of heterogeneity.

Data Synthesis: Thirty-four studies (comprising 4780 cases of prison suicide) were identified for inclusion in the review, of which 12were based in the United States. Demographic factors associated with suicide included white race/ethnicity (OR = 1.9, 95% CI = 1.7 to 2.2), being male (OR = 1.9, 95% CI = 1.4 to 2.5), and being married (OR = 1.5, 95% CI = 1.3 to 1.7). Criminological factors included occupation of a single cell (OR = 9.1, 95% CI = 6.1 to 13.5), detainee/remand status (OR = 4.1, 95% CI = 3.5 to 4.8), and serving a life sentence (OR = 3.9, 95% CI = 1.1 to 13.3). Clinical factors were recent suicidal ideation (OR = 15.2, 95% CI = 8.5 to 27.2), history of attempted suicide (OR = 8.4, 95% CI = 6.2 to 11.4), having a current psychiatric diagnosis (OR = 5.9, 95% CI = 2.3 to 15.4), receiving psychotropic medication (OR = 4.2, 95% CI = 2.9 to 6.0), and having a history of alcohol use problems (OR = 3.0, 95% CI = 1.9 to 4.6). Black race/ethnicity was inversely associated with suicide (OR = 0.4, 95% CI = 0.3 to 0.4). Few differences were found in risk estimates when compared by study design or publication type.

Conclusions: Several demographic, criminological, and clinical factors were found to be associated with suicide in prisoners, the most important being occupation of a single cell, recent suicidal ideation, a history of attempted suicide, and having a psychiatric diagnosis or history of alcohol use problems. As some of these associations included potentially modifiable environmental and clinical factors, there is scope for targeting these factors in suicide prevention strategies for individuals in custody.

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Fazel S, Cartwright J, Norman-Nott A, Hawton K. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Nov;69(11):1721-31.