In 2014 there were 25,775 incidents of self-harm in English and Welsh prisons. In 2015 there were 32,313 – a rise of more than 25% in a single year. What’s more, in 2015 it was found that those serving indeterminate sentences have one of the highest rates of self harm in prison, more than any other type of sentence. What is yet to be examined is whether there is a causal relationship between efforts at rehabilitation and self-harm.
My experiences of official efforts to rehabilitate (which mostly take the form of courses which are delivered by psychologists) is that they are really good at getting prisoners to open up about the deepest, sometimes darkest, often most painful and shameful things they have ever experienced. What they are not so good at is dealing with the aftermath. It is inevitable that when someone opens up that Pandora’s box to deal with what they have kept suppressed for so many years, there is going to be at least some degree of emotional turmoil. However, at the end of a session on a psychological course in prison there is a short check out where prisoners are able to raise any issues they feel comfortable bringing up (if there is time), but then you’re on your own.
When I was 14 years old something happened in my life that I didn’t know how to deal with. My friends knew about it, but they didn’t know what to do either. I told my parents, but I didn’t feel like they understood just how far to the edge it had pushed me. So I buried it. I began drinking and I lived one minute at a time, constantly trying to distract myself from the pain of the past and my fear of the future. Eventually that led into me offending and, ultimately, ending up in prison. But even then, I couldn’t talk about it. It was buried too deep already and the idea of raising that pain back to the surface was far too frightening of a prospect for me to even consider it. Last year that changed. The psychologists gave me a place on one of their courses and I knew that I needed to put my all into it in order to get the most out of it. So I told them. I told them what had happened and I opened up. Whilst in the session the psychologists were patient and understanding and, at the end, they did ask how I was doing. I’m grateful for that support. However, when you are feeling emotional and are sitting in a room full of people staring at you, knowing there is just a matter of minutes available until you have to go back to the wing, the question “How are you doing?” only has one answer: “Ok.” Not “Good.” (The dishonest answer) Not “I feel like I want to tear my stomach open, grab hold of my exposed ribcage and pull until it breaks open and my heart flies out.” (The honest answer). But “Ok.” (The answer of someone who doesn’t want to be dishonest but who also knows that delving into those feelings again only to have to go back to the wing because there simply isn’t time to deal with them is only going to make it worse).
Occasionally the psychologists will come and see a prisoner on the wing later in the day if they’ve had a rough session. When this is possible, and its done, and there’s time to really talk, this can help. On many occasions, including the one I described above, this wasn’t possible. At other times the psychologists will phone the wing staff and tell the wing senior officer that you’ve had a rough session. This is well intended, in the hope that wing staff will check in with the prisoner and ensure that they are ok, but on none of the occasions that I had a rough session did any member of the wing staff so much as say hello. The only time any such support was shown was when I sought out an officer to talk to myself.
The psychologists talk about establishing a strong support network both internally and externally. Well, speaking for myself, when I am at my lowest talking to family about it doesn’t really help. Not because of anything they are or are not doing or saying, but because (even though I know they’d want me to) I can’t shake the feeling that putting my grief on them makes me into a burden. Meanwhile, my experiences over the last fifteen years have made it very hard for me to trust prison officers. At the time of my roughest session on the course there were just three officers I trusted enough to talk to about anything personal. Since then, two of them have been reallocated to another wing and I have been told by the wing management staff that they find the fact that I spend more time speaking to the third officer than most other staff “suspicious”. As a result I told them that, to alleviate their suspicions, I wouldn’t be speaking to that officer again. And I haven’t done since. Support networks are extremely difficult to establish, but very easy for the prison to decimate.
This is where the mental health team could step up and offer support but, as I’ve written before, when I asked to be considered for talking therapy they said they would put me forward but I then received a memo under my door stating that they had decided that I didn’t need any further intervention at this stage. The fact that they had determined that before I ever got a chance to go into what was effecting me so much is amazing. So there you have a prisoner, trying his best to engage with his own rehabilitation, opening up about things he hasn’t spoken about for nearly half his life, dealing with all of the pain that comes from that, and yet sources of emotional support are simply unavailable. Imagine how much worse it gets when the course ends entirely. Now you’ve got a prisoner who has raised all of these issues back to the surface, but who still feels no better about them (and who certainly doesn’t feel like any kind of resolution has been achieved), who not only is denied any of the emotional support described above, but doesn’t even have the safe environment of the course sessions to express himself in. He is truly alone with his thoughts of self-harm. Indeterminate prisoners don’t get released until, they can demonstrate a reduction in risk, chiefly through engagement on psychological courses. Is it any wonder then that the rates of self harm amongst those with this sentence type are so much higher? As I said, the psychologists are really good at getting you to open up about the past, but they are nowhere near as good at dealing with the emotional aftermath. Since rehabilitation is not optional but rather it is a crucial element of the justice system and the sole weapon to prevent the creation of further victims, something has to be done to ensure that prisoners who engage with it are fully supported at every stage. If this were the case it wouldn’t have taken me 15 years to pluck up the courage to talk about my issues, I wouldn’t have felt so alone and let down when finally talking about them, and I would have known how to deal with my feelings and who to turn to with them afterwards. This can be the difference between reformation into a constructive member of society and decline into a spiral of depression, self-harm, and suicide. What’s more, such support would actually consolidate the rehabilitation undertaken whilst not offering such support completely undermines it and, often, simply causes the prisoner to re-bury their pain and coast again. There can be no compromising on this one. The support MUST be offered, it MUST be consistent, and it MUST come now. Failure to provide it is costing lives. Aside from non-fatal acts of self-harm, nearly 100 people committed suicide in English and Welsh prisons in one year alone (March 2014 to March 2015).