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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Report on Self-Injurious Behaviour in the Kingston Prison for Women

Section 1: Extent of the Problem

1.1 Prisoner Responses

    Of the 44 prisoners who completed the interview, 26 (59%) indicated that they engage in, or have engaged in self-injurious behaviour. Of these respondents, 24 (92%) have used slashing as the method of self-injury. Many of these women reported using headbanging, starvation, burning and/or tatooing in addition to slashing. The remaining eight percent primarily reported headbanging as the method of injury.

It is difficult to determine from this data the exact extent of the problem of self-injurious behaviour in the Kingston Prison for Women. The interview responses and the number of women with scars on their bodies indicate that a large number of this prison population self-injure at one time or another. However, not all of these women (60%) do so on a regular basis. In addition, some of the respondents reporting self-injury (16%) have not recently engaged in this behaviour. It may be the case that the latter group of women have resolved the issues leading them to self-injure, and as such, should no longer be included in the figures relating to self-injurious behaviour. On the other hand, in September and October of this year, there were slashing incidents among women who had not self-injured in years. These slashings took place during a time of particular stress in the prison. This suggests that although a woman may find alternatives to self-injury, in times of severe stress without appropriate treatment, the potential for self-injury still exists. This reasoning argues for the inclusion of these respondents in the figures on self-injurious behaviour. Regardless of whether the extent of self-injury is defined by behaviour occurring within a specified time period or by the behaviour ever being exhibited, it is obvious that self-injurious behaviour is a problem for a large number of prisoners at some point in their incarceration. It is interesting to note that 100% of the prisoners endorsed a programme for self-injury whether or not they themselves self-injure.


1.2 Security Personnel Responses

    The CX staff hold widely divergent views on the extent to which self-injurious behaviour occurs within the prison. Some personnel reported that only 2 - 3 % of the prison population engage in this behaviour. Others believe the rate to be as high as 70%. The mean response was 18% (S.D. = 16.8%). This discrepancy is most likely explained by differences in the definition of self-injury. Some CX staff use scars as an indication of self-injurious behaviour while others identify self-injurious women only as those who have recently engaged in the behaviour. In addition, some CX staff use degree of injury to differentiate between self-injurious and non-self-injurious women. In these cases, only deep wounds are considered indicative of true self-injurious behaviour. More superficial wounds are considered to be a form of manipulative or attention seeking behaviour.

    There was no correlation between length of employment at the Prison for Women and estimated frequency of self-injury. In addition, there was no correlation between reactions to self-injury and estimated frequency of occurrence.

    It is important to note the disparity between prisoner reports of self-injury and many of the security personnel reports on the number of occurrences. In some cases, prisoners who report self-injury may have engaged in this behaviour prior to being at the Kingston Prison for Women. This undoubtedly accounts for some of the discrepancy. In addition, a number of women who injure themselves do not report their actions to staff for fear of being taken to segregation. The prisoners refer to these cases as quiet slashings. Therefore, some of the incidences of self-injury are not open to public scrutiny. Finally, the prisoners report that the degree of injury is not important in the definition of the behaviour. Thus, discrepancies in definition may account for a portion of the difference between the prisoners' reported rates of occurrence and the estimates reported by many of the CX staff.

1.3 Outbreaks of Self-Injury

    During my visits to the Prison for Women in February, a number of individuals mentioned that there appear to be outbreaks of self-injury. Both prisoners and CX staff were questioned on this and asked why they thought these outbreaks occur.

    1.3.1 Prisoner Responses Regarding Outbreaks of Self-Injury

    Fifty percent of the prisoners stated that outbreaks of self-injury are due to tension in the prison. Policy changes, the attitudes of certain CX staff, and mass punishment were most often cited as the reasons for the tension. Seventeen percent of the respondents reported that when a self-injury occurs it adds to their own pain and this increases the probability that they, in turn, will self-injure. One prisoner summed up these sentiments by stating:

Friendships are intensified in the prison. When someone you care about slashes, it upsets you because you are already upset about the same shit she is. When your friend slashes it tilts you because of her distress. So you're dealing with the shit and now you're dealing with your friend's pain and it's just too much.

    Fourteen percent of the prisoners said they don't know what causes outbreaks of self-injury. The remaining responses did not suggest any particular patterns. Thus, most prisoners identify situational factors as responsible for the precipitation of outbreaks of self-injury.

    1.3.2 Security Staff Responses Regarding Outbreaks of Self-Injury

    Thirty percent of the CX staff identified tension in the prison as causing outbreaks of self-injury. These responses were similar to those of the prisoners in that policy changes, the attitudes of certain CX staff, and mass punishment were cited as being responsible for the tension. Drugs were mentioned as a causal factor in outbreaks of self-injury by 15% of the CX staff. An additional 15% of the respondents believe that muscling/peer pressure is the cause of self-injury outbreaks. Ten percent of the CX staff stated that there is a "copy cat" phenomenon that occurs with self-injury. Anger (7.5%), and solidarity (7.5%) were other reasons identified by the respondents. The remaining responses did not suggest any particular patterns. Although many security personnel support the fact that situational factors are involved in self-injury, the majority identified these situations as being personal (drugs, copying another's behaviour, anger), or interpersonal (muscling/peer pressure, solidarity).