Suicide and self-harm in prisons examined in Office of Inspectorate report

29 February 2024

The Office of the Inspectorate has released a thematic report which examines suspected suicides and self-harm threat to life incidents in New Zealand prisons.

Chief Inspector Janis Adair said the research arose from a concern that the number of suspected suicides and serious self-harm incidents in New Zealand prisons was increasing.

The report found that the number of suspected suicides in New Zealand prisons has remained relatively stable since 1989/90, with an average of around three to six a year, although there have been some increases, with 11 people dying by suspected suicide in the 2015/16 year and in 2020/21. In the five-year review period (1 July 2016 to 30 June 2021), there were 29 suspected suicides in prisons. (Note, only the Coroner can rule that a death is suicide).

In the five-year review period, 158 people in New Zealand prisons were involved in 253 self-harm threat to life incidents, where they would likely have died if there had been no immediate intervention by staff. Self-harm threat to life incidents had increased over the period and then reduced somewhat, although not back to 2016/17 levels.

Ms Adair said a prevention-focused approach to people in prison was needed, with the aim of preventing deaths and serious self-harm events.

“We should all be concerned about the deaths by suspected suicide of people who are imprisoned, and should adopt a prevention focused approach to managing people in closed environments.

“It is our duty to care about this and do all we can, individually, collectively and across sectors to prevent these deaths and serious self-harm events.”

The report Suspected Suicide and Self-harm Threat to Life Incidents in New Zealand Prisons examines the time period 2016–2021.

Risk factors for suicide and self-harm are more common for people in prison than in the general population. Risk factors include having mental health issues, being on remand, and being kept separate in the prison population.

The report outlines how Corrections has been working to mitigate suspected suicides and self-harm incidents in prison (such as by introducing mental health initiatives and workforce development).

The report identified areas of good practice, where people were treated with skill and compassion.

The report makes six recommendations and has 54 areas for consideration (which covers reception into prison, early days in prison, health care, prison life, Intervention and Support units, postvention (response after a suicide), release, and the impact of Covid-19.

The Office of the Inspectorate investigates all deaths in New Zealand prisons, and these reports are provided to the Coroner but not publicly released. The reports also contain recommendations for Corrections to improve its policies and processes.