Our hidden tragedy
Mental health and addiction problems contribute to a prisoner suicide rate nearly five times higher than the general population.
New Zealand's suicide rate is 11 per 100,000 people compared with about 50 per 100,000 in prisons.
A recent National Health Committee report said that 89 per cent of prisoners had lifetime substance abuse, 52 per cent had lifetime psychotic, mood or anxiety disorders and 60 per cent had mild to severe personality disorders.
Prisoners are often young, Maori and from low socio-economic groups, which, research shows, increases their suicide risk.
About 5 per cent of prisoners get mental health treatment while in prison.
Untreated disorders and addictions were driving a cycle of crime, the committee said.
It recommended responsibility for inmates' health be transferred from the Department of Corrections to the Ministry of Health.
Department of Corrections acting national health manager Deborah Alleyne said preventing suicide was a priority, and the rate had dropped in recent years.
Over the past financial year four prisoners died in "apparent suicides" and 38 made serious attempts.
In the 2005-06 year, six prisoners died in "apparent suicides" and 42 made serious attempts.
Targeting staff training to identify self-harm warning signs had helped save at least 190 prisoners in the past five years, she said.
Alleyne said the department had 14 units where inmates were monitored and helped by mental health professionals.
High-security, remand and youth prisoners were no longer allowed razors in their cells and were given one when they needed to shave. "Despite our efforts, it is incredibly difficult to stop someone who is determined to do harm to themselves," she said.
- The Press