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Suicides on the rise in prison during the pandemic

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Health measures have been added to the restrictions of the prison environment during the pandemic.


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Suicides and suicide attempts have increased “starkly” in detention establishments in Quebec in 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, a period marked by the health emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic, notes a study published Wednesday by a team from the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).

Data obtained from the Ministry of Public Security of Quebec by researchers under Access to information requests indicate that 16 inmates took their own lives between April 2020 and March 2021.

In the year that followed (2021-2022), authorities recorded 10 suicides. This is more than in the two years preceding the pandemic (5 in 2018-2019 and 8 in 2019-2020), indicates the study of around forty pages, led by the researcher Catherine Chesnay, professor at the School of Social Work at UQAM.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the period during which detention conditions were particularly restrictive was associated with a marked increase in the number of deaths classified as suicide, notes the study, entitled Deaths in provincial prisons : an inventory.

The measures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – confinement, quarantines, reduction of services and programs offered, etc. –, to which were added staff shortages, were experienced with difficulty by the inmates.

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The conditions of detention really have a significant effect on the mental health of incarcerated people, explained Ms. Chesnay in an interview on the show Midi info< /em>, on HERE Première.

And what can best prevent [suicide] will be the connection with loved ones, meaningful connections with other people who are incarcerated or other people, staff members, continues the researcher. And when the pandemic hit, there really was a stop to visits. Even lawyers could no longer go to prisons; the incarcerated people were isolated, all alone in cells, she recalls.

It's really the end of social ties, somewhere, which increases suffering, which can lead to suicide.

A quote from Catherine Chesnay , professor at the School of Social Work at UQAM

His team notes that the Public Protector has noted a 70% increase in complaints related to detention conditions and hygiene.

The study also notes an overall increase in suicide rates for the period studied as well as two other peaks in suicides, namely in 2011-2012 (13) and in 2017-2018 (12 ).

Overall, the data shows 98 suicides in 13 years, or 38 % of 256 deaths occurring between April 2009 and March 2022.

Suicide attempts have also seen a considerable increase, reaching a particularly high level over the last two years, note UQAM researchers.

Their report thus counts 71 suicide attempts in 2020-2021 and 66 in 2021-2022, out of a total of 411 in 13 years. For comparison, the number of suicide attempts during the other years of the period studied varied between 2 and 46.

These figures are particularly striking, since provincial detention centers house inmates serving sentences of less than two years (i.e. shorter sentences than those in federal penitentiaries) as well as accused awaiting trial and convicted persons awaiting transfer.

Detention conditions are difficult in provincial prisons, reports Ms. Chesnay.

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Catherine Chesnay criticizes, among other things, the conditions at the Leclerc detention establishment in Laval.

If we think in particular at the Quebec prison, [at that of] Bordeaux, [at the establishment] Leclerc, we know that these are buildings which are dilapidated; there are vermin, the hygienic conditions are poor. It's certain that it has an impact on incarcerated people, so even if the incarceration time is short, there is an effect on the person's mental health, she told Midi info.

Data from 2009 to 2022 from the Ministry of Public Safety collected in the report also lists 85 deaths classified as natural, 71 classified as having an undetermined cause as well as two homicides and no accidents.

Deaths classified as natural also constitute a third of the deaths recorded over the entire period.

At the microphone of Radio-Canada, Catherine Chesnay said she was very surprised by the difficulty of accessing data and quality data.

She deplores the opacity of the prison system, the difficulty of having data to understand so much the needs of the people there, their trajectory and also the consequences that incarceration has on their lives.

According to her, her report shows the lack of interest in preventing deaths in custody. We know that people in prison die younger, die in greater numbers than people outside prison walls; It’s a public health problem, she insists. What we see is that there is a lack of interest in addressing this issue to prevent deaths, she judges.

The lack of transparency and monitoring of the phenomenon of deaths in prison, despite the increase in the number of deaths, says a lot about the political positioning and the lack of rigor with which these events are taken into account.

A quote from Extract from the report

His team's study is particularly scathing about deaths classified as having an undetermined cause, which account for 28% of deaths in provincial prisons between April 2009 and March 2022.

That's about five or six people out of 10 years who die in prison every year, and we can't determine the cause , deplores the UQAM researcher.

Considering that prisons are extremely controlled places and under constant surveillance, it is dismaying not to obtain clear answers about an event as tragic as a death, write the researcher and her colleagues.

However, argues Professor Chesnay, the Coroner's Office conducts an investigation into the death of an inmate to define the cause, the circumstances and identify the deceased person. It is surprising, she believes, that Public Security data is not updated with the coroner's conclusions.

She raises, for example, the problem of opioids, which risks being passed over in silence. Research conducted in other provinces shows an increase in overdose deaths in prisons, she says.

Unfortunately, says Catherine Chesnay, with the figures we currently have, we cannot verify this hypothesis and we cannot intervene to prevent these effects.

The League of Rights and Freedoms (LDL) reacted to the report by denouncing the opacity and lack of information x27;actions of the Ministry of Public Safety and the alarming incongruities regarding mortality.

The LDL considers all deaths in detention as suspicious and as possibly linked to systemic violations of the rights of incarcerated people which are observed and denounced repeatedly, she wrote in a press release, saying she found the lack of information for deaths of undetermined causes aberrant.

The organization also insists on the need to understand what leads so many people to make attempts of suicide during their incarceration.

In their report, the researchers thank the LDL, which, through its work defending the rights of incarcerated people, led us to question the phenomenon of deaths in provincial prisons.

If you or one of your loved ones is in distress, here is the resources offered:

In Quebec: (New window)

Call toll free 1 866 CALL [277-3553].

If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

You can also send a text message to a speaker at 535353: this confidential chat service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

In Quebec and Canada, 1 888 LE DEUIL [533-3845] is a telephone crisis line for people who have lost a loved one.

In Canada: (New window)

Call or text 988: this helpline is open 7 days a week, day and night.< /p>

For people bereaved by suicide, the AQPS has created an online space for exchanges and testimonies accessible to mourningbysuicide.ca (New window).

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116