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Don't be quick to buy suicide claim

Published:Tuesday | November 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM


All suicide cases in our prisons must first be considered homicides until proven otherwise. That's my theory that I'll always stand by.

Having worked in some of the island's largest prisons, the pattern of labelling prison deaths as suicides has always been my concern. I tried often, then, to mentally construct the mechanism of these so-called suicides, but reports from prison authorities and investigating police seem credible and were conclusive.

While we all should agree that suicide is the worst consequence of depression, one would easily concur that the frequency of suicide in our overcrowded and understaffed prisons should be high. The latter theory, fortunately, so far, has not been the fact.

On several occasions, I got calls to pronounce dead inmates who allegedly committed suicide. Most of these scenes will forever remain implanted in my brain. In one instance, a prisoner was hanging from his cell's iron-barred roof, with toes at least an inch from the ground, a cheese pan near his feet and his body leaning against his cell's door.

Another alleged suicide victim was found in sitting position with pieces of clothing material around his neck. Poisoning of food or water is also a frequent method applied in making a case for prison suicide.

In a number of these claimed cases of prison suicide, the real stories are released confidentially to a trusted few. There is a case I recall where an internal 'court' session was held and the inmate found guilty. His sentence was death by hanging. There were those who fear death if they were from another community tribe or refused to fall in line with reputed leaders.

It is my view that planned murder within some of our prisons are boldly, hurriedly and easily bundled as suicide.

Nevertheless, prison suicide is a complex phenomenon. Hence, a dynamic holistic approach geared towards preventive strategies needs to be established. Murder of inmates/wards, as well proven suicide, is everyone's responsibility: the Department of Correctional Services, officers, prison doctors, prisoners and their families and the general community.

In the latest alleged suicide case involving a female ward of the State, it is advisable that the prison authorities refrain from concluding and justifying their suspicion. The minister of national security has a moral obligation and an opportunity to call for an intensive investigation.