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Women prisoners more likely to self-harm

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Self-harm is a big problem in prisons across England and Wales, particularly among female inmates.

The largest ever study of self-harm in prisons reveals that one in four women prisoners self-harm each year, while women inside are four times more likely to self-harm compared to their male counterparts.

Dr Seena Fazel and Professor Keith Hawton, both from the University of Oxford, led the research, which examined the prevalence of self-harm in all prisoners in England and Wales between 2004 and 2009.

A total of 139,195 incidents of self-harm, involving 26,510 inmates, were recorded during the six-year period.

This ranged from about 20,000 to 25,000 incidents per year, with women accounting for roughly half of these.

Furthermore, incidents of self-harm were 10 times more prevalent in females than males - with 20% to 24% of female prisoners and 5% to 6% of male inmates self-harming every year - and around 30 times that of the general population of the UK.

Repetition rates were also striking. For instance if a female prisoner self-harmed, she would typically self-harm eight times per year.

In the most extreme cases, a total of 102 women and two men self-harmed more than 100 times per year.

Several factors were found to increase the risk of self-harm in both sexes, including younger age (below 20-years-old), being white, and being unsentenced or having a life sentence.

Among female prisoners, having committed a violent offence was also discovered to be a contributing factor.

Cutting and scratching were the most common methods of self-harm in both female and male prisoners.

Poisoning, overdose, or swallowing objects not intended for ingestion were also frequent methods among men and teenage boys (9%), while self-strangulation was common among women and adolescent girls (31%).

“While self-harm is a substantial problem across the board, it is a particularly serious issue for women in prison who make up only 5% of the prison population but account for half of all self-harm incidents,” said Dr Fazel.

“Moreover, now we know the extent to which the risk of subsequent suicide in prisoners who self-harm is greater than the general prison population, suicide prevention initiatives should be changed to include a focus on prisoners who are self-harming, especially repeatedly.”

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