ADIR - L'altro diritto

ISSN 1827-0565

Suicide in prison

Silvia Ubaldi, 1997


Suicide and attempted suicide in prison became in the last years a very relevant issue, especially after some "outstanding" suicides of political and social relevance.

The fist problem tackled by this research is an analysis of the relevant literature. The few Italian studies available till now assume mostly a medical point of view, and generally speaking it could be said that nowadays this field is divided among researches that assume the medical perspective, and that prevail in the civil law countries, and studies that assume the sociological perspective, mostly epidemiological, and that prevail in the common law countries.

Moreover the available literature could be classified according to the fact that suicide is explained in terms of endogenous or exogenous factors: the sociological tradition focuses on social (exogenous) factors, the medical tradition focuses on pathological, and therefore endogenous and individual, factors.

The medical and sociological studies therefore stress two different aspects of the same problem, and only recently, according to Taylor, the distance between these two perspectives is decreasing.

The aim of this research is to reconstruct the particular meaning of every single suicidal behaviour studied. The cases analysed took place in Prato, Pistoia and Sollicciano prisons between 1992 and 1996. The main difficulty encountered in this analysis was to get the relevant information. Much information is kept secret and moreover the suicidal behaviours have not an autonomous classification in the prison reports. They are part of the officers' reports on prison "accidents", and to identify every single case of suicide we depend on what the reports identified as suicidal behaviour.

That is why this empirical research reconstructs every case on the accounts of the wards. But relevant documents are also the letters from the convicts to their families or the statements of the convicts after attempted suicides.

Evaluating the whole cases becomes possible to draw a table that summarises the bureaucratic "labelling" of the staff according to the ideal meaning of every suicide.

At one end suicide is an active, aggressive deviance: the convict killing (or trying to kill) himself expresses an aggressiveness that in fact he would like to use against the others. At the other end suicide is a passive form of deviance: the convict kills himself for self-punishment. In contrast to rebellion/suicide, passive suicide is an act of abdication. According to this classification other meanings could be identified. Suicide as active rebellion could mean plea/protest, offence/revenge or threat/extortion. Suicide as passive deviance could depend on depression. Using some Freudian categories these suicidal behaviours could be classified in terms of suicide/punishment, suicide/mourning and suicide/melancholy. Finally suicide is again an act of passive deviance when expresses a desire to breakaway. In this case suicide could be considered as "rational" or "irrational" according to the level of clarity of the person while planning his suicide.

After this theoretical systematisation the research analyses the available case studies, that are matched to the ideal models described in the table.