Suicide in prison in France

In France, suicide is seven times more frequent among prisoners than in the general population. Which inmates are most vulnerable? A study of French penitentiary service data allows for identifying several risk factors specific to the prison environment, such as pre-trial detention or placement in disciplinary cell.

CC Christian Senger

Nearly one in two deaths in French prisons is a suicide. The prison suicide rate has risen greatly since the mid-nineteenth century. And from 2005 to 2010, the rate was 18.5 suicides per 10,000 prisoners, seven times higher than in the general population, where in 2010 the rate was 2.7 per 10,000 men aged 15 to 59 (the group closest in sex and age structure to the prison population).
INED’s Géraldine Duthé together with Angélique Hazard and Annie Kensey of the French Ministry of Justice’s Direction de l’Administration Pénitentiaire have analysed data from the national prisoner management database (GIDE). Their study, published in the journal Population, concerned 363,525 prison terms and 377 suicides occurring from 1 January 2006 to 15 July2009. It identifies the following incarceration conditions and prisoner characteristics as indicators of particularly high risk for suicide:

  • pre-trial detention

Although indicted persons are presumed innocent, they can still be remanded in custody before being tried, either as a security measure or for reasons connected to the criminal investigation. Approximately 34 suicides per 10,000 pre-trial detainees were registered, as against nearly 13 per 10,000 among convicted offenders. Regardless of age, sex, nature of the offence and other characteristics, suicide is twice as common among pre-trial detainees, who are particularly hard hit by the shock of incarceration and the stress of uncertainty surrounding possible conviction.

  • placement in a disciplinary cell

Periods in a disciplinary cell are associated with considerably higher suicide risk—15 times higher than that observed for periods in ordinary cells. Being placed in solitary confinement (the punishment for breaching prison regulations) may indicate that an inmate is having difficulty adapting to the prison environment. Though periods in disciplinary cells are usually quite short (less than 1% of total observed detention time), they increase vulnerability through isolation. 

  • loss of contact with family and friends

Suicide risk is higher for inmates who have not received a visit recently than for those who have (2.5 times higher than for those who received at least one visit from a person close to them). These findings reflect the importance of personal ties, ties that are often broken by imprisonment or, earlier, by the offence that led to detention.

  • gravity of the offence

Suicide rates are particularly high for persons imprisoned for or on suspicion of murder (48 per 10,000 inmates), rape (27 per 10,000) or other sexual offences (24 per 10,000). In addition to the heavy sentences incurred by such offences, suicide risk is assumed to increase with the following: the offence itself, remorse about the act committed or a feeling of injustice at being imprisoned, and in the case of crimes strongly condemned by other inmates, ostracism within the prison.

  • hospital stays

Suicide risk is higher among persons who recently had a stay in hospital than among other prisoners (1.7 to 1). The data studied do not provide hospitalization reasons but in some cases hospitalization may have been linked to mental health problems. The medical information needed to complete this part of the study was not available.

The data used do not allow for measuring the potential impact of prison overcrowding, which is extremely difficult to assess.

The number of inmates in French prisons rose sharply in the second half of the twentieth century, from under 20,000 in 1955 to 62,000 in 2010.  With 113 inmates for 100 places in the early 2010s, French prisons are currently overcrowded.
Overcrowding is greatest in facilities for inmates with sentences under 2 years; the occupancy rate in such facilities is around 130%. But the same facilities also house pre-trial detainees, whose suicide rate is higher than for other prisoners.
With prison overcrowding comes considerable deterioration of inmate living conditions. But the connection between overcrowding and suicide risk seems complex, because at the individual level, having a cellmate may reduce feelings of isolation or simply make it materially harder to do the deed.


Source: Duthé G., Hazard A. et Kensey A.,  2014, «Trends and Risk Factors for Prisoner Suicide in France», Population, 69(4)
Contact: Géraldine Duthé
Online: March 2015