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Overcrowding in Prisons: Risk of Suicide Among Women Prisoners, Research Paper Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1199

Research Paper

In her study entitled, Does Overcrowding in Prisons Exacerbate the Risk of Suicide among Women Prisoners? (Sharkey, 2010), King’s College graduate student, Lauren Sharkey examines the different effects that result from overcrowding in prisons. Ms. Sharkey determined that the issue as to these effects had been grossly understudied and she resolved as part of her study that the matter be addressed more fully. As a premise of her study, Ms. Sharkey suggested that women are more vulnerable than men on entering prison and that, therefore, they are less capable of handling the stress of the prison environment. With this in mind, she conducted an extensive review of the existing studies and related literature, plus, she conducted her own interview of women prisoners in an effort to gather her own data and analyze the results.

In her study the article author, identifies two essential purposes for the study. First, the study was intended to examine what factors contributed to suicide and suicide attempts among women prisoners. She suggests that discovering such factors might assist prison officials in not only identifying potential suicidal prisoners but also assist in initiating actions that might reduce the actual incident or attempt. The second identified goal of the study was to identify ways that overcrowding exacerbated the risk of suicide in women’s prisons. Sharkey argues that this second identified goal has been largely ignored by professionals in the field and deserved special attention in light of the mandate from the European Union directing that attention be directed at prisoners’ rights under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

For purposes of the study the definition as suggested by Lesley Brown in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Brown, 1993, p. 3135) was used. Brown defines suicide as, “the action or an act of intentionally killing oneself” and attempted suicide as “a deliberate or ambivalent act of self-destruction or other life-threatening behaviour that does not result in death.” In collecting data for the study,  this was the operational definition used.

The study that formed the focus of the article was designed to include in-depth, semi-structured interviews with ten female prisoners incarcerated in a closed female person in England. The prison was not clearly identified nor were the interviewees but all ten were adult participants. Interviewing only adult prisoners was done specifically to eliminate any vulnerabilities among the prisoners associated with young age. The prisoners involved in the study were sentenced prisoners and not individuals awaiting sentencing. Again, this was by design to alleviate any anxiety or concern over pending sentencing. It was felt that such concern could skew the results. The offenses for which the ten women were incarcerated varied as did they period of their incarceration. The interviews were conducted privately and in a one-on-one basis. All the women interviewed were questioned as to their personal history, pre-prison experiences, their life inside the prison, and the circumstances surrounding their attempted suicide.

From the data that was collected from the women prisoners in the study, Sharkey inductively argued that the “prison staff need to be able to respond flexibly to the varying needs of individual prisoners and this is inevitably inhibited when establishments are overcrowded (Sharkey, 2010: p.117). This conclusion was based upon data from the prisoners responding to questions as to what specific conditions in the prison affected them negatively. Examples of such conditions included waiting in line for medications and line jumping by more dominant prisoners.

Although the study used inductive logic throughout the body of the report, the study began with a generalized premise that overcrowding contributed to the overall rate of suicide among women prisoners. For the remainder of the study, Sharkey offered examples of data that supported her original premise and deductively reasoned how these examples supported her original premise. The body of the study is full of examples of how Sharkey concludes that overcrowding affects suicidal tendencies in women prisoners.

The study in question has elements of both a qualitative and quantitative design but the study is more properly identifies as being quantitative in nature. In the study, the methodology used was one of classifying identified circumstances and then counting how many of the specific prisoners were affected by the circumstances. The research was conducted through the use of specific questions but there were qualitative elements to the interview process as well. The prisoners did not fill out prepared questionnaires but, instead, answered questions propounded by an interviewer. Such process allows for some measure of subjectivity which is more closely identified with qualitative design. Overall, however, the design of this study is best characterized as being quantitative.

After reviewing the available literature and conducting the interviews, the study developed four factors that contributed to the suicide rates of women prisoners. The four factors set forth by the study were 1) the vulnerability of the prisoners; 2) the overall prison experience; 3) the deprivations of imprisonment; and 4) overcrowding. The study did not elaborate on the relative effect of the four factors. It only concluded that these four factors act in concert to affect the rates of suicide in women’s prisons.

The author began her study with the premise that overcrowding was the single most significant factor in contributing to suicide rates in women’s prisons but she transformed her thinking after conducting her literature review and prisoner interviews. From both sources she was able to obtain a greater understanding of the problem and discover that overcrowding was just one of the factors. The study reveals that isolating one factor as being the cause of suicide and suicide attempts is not possible. There is no distinct cause, but rather, those who either commit or attempt suicide are affected by a variety of factors that ultimately interact to create circumstances that result in suicidal ideation.

The results of the study are enlightening and provide valuable information regarding the various factors that contribute to suicide rates inside women’s prison but the study could be improved in a number of ways. First, the sample size is extremely small and, therefore, easily criticized as being statistically invalid. Ten interviews performed in one location are immediately suspect. A more balanced approach would increase the sample size and conduct interviews in a variety of locations. The process used to produce the data is also questionable. The use of the oral interview method tends to bring a level of subjectivity into the study that could be avoided through the use of a more objective testing method. For instance, the simple use of a prepared questionnaire would garner more objective results that would lend a higher level of legitimacy to the results.

In any event, the study is enlightening and brings attention to a problem that might otherwise be overlooked. The author does an excellent job of assimilating the various sources of information available on the subject and comparing the literature to her own interview data. In doing so, she effectively provides a basis for future studies to address and, hopefully, generate some solutions for a serious social problem.

References

Brown, L. (1993). The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Vol. 2). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Sharkey, L. (2010). Does Overcrowding in Prisons Exacerbate the Risk of Suicide among Women Prisoners? The Howard Journal , 111-124.

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