Wednesday 21 February 2018

Prisoners on brink of suicide being saved by fellow inmates who train with Samaritans

Sarah Stack

Sarah Stack

PRISONERS on the brink of suicide are being saved by fellow inmates who train with the Samaritans.

Some 40 convicted criminals around the country are on standby 24 hours a day to listen in confidence to prisoners who are distressed or in despair.

Orla McCaffrey, Samaritans' prison support officer, said the scheme is a vital intervention in the prison service.

About 600 prisoners called on "listeners" for help in the last 12 months, up 20% on the previous years.

"It is well documented that the prison population suffers higher levels of emotional distress than the rest of the population, and there is a greater prevalence of self-harm," she said.

"Suicide rates are also higher.

"Our service is in significant demand, and both prisoners and authorities view it as an essential safety net for those in significant distress."

Samaritans volunteers have been visiting prisons across Ireland on a weekly basis since the early 1990s and 10 years ago the charity began training inmates.

It is hoped the scheme - already in Arbour Hill, Cloverhill, Mountjoy, Mountjoy Training Unit and Wheatfield - will be rolled out to the Dochas Centre, Midland's Prison and Loughlan House.

Latest figures show 49 prisoner deaths since 2007, but coroners' courts have only ruled death by suicide in five of 28 inquests held to date.

Ms McCaffrey said many prisoners have fears about their sentence, are lonely, and worry about their loved ones on the outside, while others suffer from mental health issues, alcohol or drug abuse, or have issues around sexuality.

"One of the side benefits of the listener scheme is the impact that the training and experience have on many of the trained listeners," she continued.

"In some cases, the training offered by Samaritans is the first piece of training or education that a prisoner may have undertaken outside of the formal education system.

"Most listeners take great pride in the work, and many would cite greater levels of self-confidence and self-control as impacts of the training and subsequent work.

"We also have evidence to suggest that some of our listeners, upon release, have reduced reconviction levels and go on to further education or training."

A cross-party delegation of politicians from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality visited Wheatfield Prison to meet inmates trained for the listener scheme.

Kathleen Lynch, junior minister, told the visiting delegates the scheme was a little-recognised but hugely important service within the prison system.

"The higher instances of self-harm and suicide amongst the prison population is a concern for me, and the provision of emotional support in a prison setting can go some way towards tackling this issue," she said.

"It is offering a genuine self-development opportunity, and is clearly having an impact on the path of life listeners take after their release," she added.

Frances Daly, deputy governor at Wheatfield Prison, said the scheme has proven to be an effective and necessary infrastructure in a prison setting.

"I have personally observed the positive impact which it has on both the prisoner in emotional distress and the listener," he said.

"It's important that this scheme is highlighted so that other prisons can learn of the benefits."

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