Prison staff’s views and understanding of the role of emotions in prisoner suicide and violence [2020]

Suicide and violence are a major concern in prisons, and it has been suggested that alexithymia may be associated with these behaviours. Alexithymia can be defined as the inability to identify and describe emotions. This study aimed to explore staff’s understanding and attitudes about identifying and discussing emotions in prisoner suicide and violence. Twenty prison staff across departments were interviewed about their understanding of how emotional difficulties contribute towards prisoner suicide and violence. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using thematic analysis. Analysis revealed five main themes and nine subthemes. Staff felt that prisoners struggled to identify, understand and communicate their emotions which led to intense and sudden outbursts of emotion. In turn, prisoners responded to these outbursts using two main maladaptive coping strategies; drug and alcohol use and harming self or others. This process was placed in a broader context of both upbringing and the prison environment. These findings therefore suggest that a change to prison regime and culture is crucial to encouraging prisoners to overcome difficulties with identifying, understanding and communicating emotions which, in turn, could help to reduce rates of suicide and violence in prison.

Laura Hemming, Daniel Pratt, Jennifer Shaw & Gillian Haddock
The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 20 Aug 2020