September - 2000
Vol# 16 - Issue# 44
Custodial Suicide: An International and Cross-Cultural Examination
One of the most intriguing characteristics involving the onset of suicide is the wide degree of variation that occurs worldwide among the diversity of cultures. Further, these variations in international suicide rates have been shown to be both broad and stable in their occurrence (Lester, 1997). Indeed, correlations between the suicide rates in 1875 and 1975 were found to exist in 14 European countries (Lester, 1987). Other researchers have found that the suicide rates of immigrant ethnic groups to both the United States and Australia are significantly associated with the suicide rates in their native countries of origin (Sainsbury & Barraclough, 1968). This is important because though different cultures have differing levels of reported suicide, some key common indicators exist in predicting and preventing suicides that are nearly universal to all cultures throughout the world. While international suicide trends have been well researched, few studies have attempted to examine world-wide trends specifically related to the phenomenon of custodial suicide. This article will serve to provide a general comparative overview of some basic social facts and trends in international suicide rates. Commonalities regarding suicide that are experienced between these nations serve to demonstrate the global nature of this at-risk population. These common international similarities further illustrate how these factors may relate to the heightened risk of suicide that is experienced in prisons. The focus of this international examination of prison suicide rates will be largely restricted to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. As stated previously, the rate of suicide in numerous countries varies greatly from one to the next. However, regardless of this diversity, nearly all cultures have certain common factors that link suicide etiology. That is, specific events and/or factors that are likely to increase risk of suicide in one country are also likely to increase risk of suicide in another country located in an entirely different part of the world. Many of these common risk factors are shared regardless of geography, ethnicity, or history, though some rare exceptions exist that are unique to specific cultures. In the literal definition of the word, a system is a number of related parts making up a whole. The criminal justice system, however, is far from these terms. How then is it possible for a system to be a nonsystem? Police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections make up this system, each having their own distinct functions, concerns, goals, and routines. Working independently, they foster functional fragmentation, lacking cooperation and coordination (Stinchcomb & Fox, 1994). In fact, their separate and defined missions are often contradictory. Corrections are at the downstream of the system existing as a response to the other entities. They also contain no autonomy and have the least control over their domain. Additionally, they inherit the discrimination and inequalities passed through the system while being the prey of politicians, who ultimately shape every aspect of corrections. Still, they have the awesome responsibilities of providing care, custody, and control over those accused or convicted of a criminal offense. The paradigm of corrections can be defined in terms of the physical plant, program, and people. These institutions create an artificial environment; a "barbed wire bureaucracy" of hierarchical structure, closed system operations, and classifications of control (Stinchcomb & Fox, 1994).