Race and suicide in jails and prisons

J Natl Med Assoc. 1989 Apr;81(4):405-11.


Jails and prison populations are unique in the incidence of deliberate self-harm, but the phenomenon is not well understood. One of the few generally accepted findings about suicidal behavior among the incarcerated is that white prisoners are overrepresented among both completed and attempted suicides, whereas black prisoners are underrepresented. This article examines the explanations two books have advanced for racial differences in rate of self-injury. The article argues that the overrepresentation of white and Hispanic prisoners and the underrepresentation of black prisoners does not warrant those books' conclusion that prison brings greater pain or intolerable stress to white and Hispanic inmates. The interpretation that black free-world life prepares blacks better for prison, whereas white and Hispanic experiences render them more crisis-prone, ignores institutional and interpersonal factors that may affect inmate behavior. That interpretation also carries potentially insidious implications for the care and management of different ethnic groups in prison. The idea that white prisoners suffer more pain from imprisonment and merit more staff attention can affect recommendations for prevention and intervention approaches to prisoners.

MeSH terms

  • African Americans / psychology
  • Ethnicity / psychology*
  • Hispanic or Latino / psychology
  • Humans
  • Prisons*
  • Suicide / psychology*
  • Suicide, Attempted / psychology