Fiachra Byrne (University College Dublin)
Between Discipline and Medical Concern: Suicide Risk and the Young Offender, 1945-1973
Speaking at the policy workshop, ‘The Prison and Mental Health: From Confinement to Diversion’, London, 12 February 2016
Fiachra’s presentation opened with a the case of a young detainee who had hung himself in 1945 while in Winchester Prison awaiting transfer to a borstal institution. In the internal inquiry which followed, it was revealed that his petition, in which he threatened suicide, had neither been referred to the prison medical officer nor had the Home Office responded to it. This omission was excused on the basis of the severe staff shortages and overcrowding that pertained in the borstal system during the Second World War.
The suicide of young people in prison has long been of concern to prison officials and to civic campaign groups. Since the late 1970s, the increasing suicide rate of prisoners, and particularly of juvenile prisoners, has been an issue prompting governmental concern. Multiple official inquiries into prison suicides have been conducted since the 1980s down to the present day. Historically, juvenile suicides were also of concern for prison health officials. In 1911, the Medical Inspector of English and Welsh Prisons, noted a significantly higher of suicide among young prisoners which he attributed to the ‘physiological instability of youth’ and called for their detention in less punitive regimes.
A study of Feltham Borstal – a facility for the physically and mentally ‘inadequate’ – in the 1950s revealed a generally unwillingness by prison officials to countenance suicide and self-harm within the framework of mental illness. Rather such behaviour, typically managed through resort to short term restraint, surveillance and isolation, was perceived within the limits of normal behaviour in the context of confinement.
From the late 1960s onwards at Feltham certain staff, such as the chaplain, gained an increasingly important role in the affective management of disturbed youth in the circumstances of the emergence of a somewhat fragile psychotherapeutic regime. Notwithstanding frequent conflict between discipline and therapeutic staff on the appropriate treatment of borstal inmates, the chaplain increasingly interceded at points of crisis when borstal detainees self-harmed or threatened suicide.
In Feltham’s hospital, psychiatric patients were largely expected to following the normal borstal training regime of vocational work and instruction, regardless of their condition. The disciplinary staff who ran the ward on a day-to-day basis, made little differentiation between prisoner self-harm other disciplinary infractions. Often, these officials held quite cynical views towards their psychiatric charges opining that at base they were simply lazy and gaming the system through the performance of illness.