Working with prisoners who self‐harm: A qualitative study on stress, denial of weakness, and encouraging resilience in a sample of correctional staff [2019]

Rates of self‐harm are high among prisoners. Most research focuses on the vulnerable prisoner, and there is little on the impact of these behaviours on staff.

To investigate staff perceptions of self‐harming behaviours by prisoners, including their views on its causes, manifestation, prevention in institutions, and impact on them.

Semistructured interviews were conducted with 20 administrative and 21 therapeutic prison staff who are responsible in various ways for prisoners who self‐harm. Their narratives were explored using interpretative phenomenological analysis.

Despite prison staff being experienced with prisoners’ self‐harming behaviours, including severe acts of self‐harm, they were apt to reject any negative impact on their own mental health or well‐being. This denial of negative impact was accompanied by perceptions of the inmate’s actions being manipulative and attention seeking. Prison staff also perceived institutional responses to self‐harming behaviours by prisoners as being mixed, ambiguous, or showing preference for relying on existing suicide protocols rather than task‐specific guidance.

Although staff gave explanations of prisoner self‐harm in terms of “manipulative behaviour,” prisoners’ self‐harm is, in fact, complex, challenging, and often severe. This staff perception may reflect denial of impact of often distressing behaviours on them personally and their own coping mechanisms. This could be feeding in to a perceived lack of clear and effective institutional responses to the self‐harm, so further research is needed to determine how staff could broaden their views, and respond more effectively to prisoners. Psychologically informed group work and/or reflective practice are among the candidates for such help for staff.

Hayden P. Smith Jenelle Power Amelia M. Usher Alicia H. Sitren Karen Slade
Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, Volume 29, Issue 1, February 2019