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Secretly suicidal: Why prisoners need access to Medicare

  • 27 July 2022
Content warning: the following article contains references to suicide.


The sympathy in the mental health nurse’s eyes was genuine. ‘I’m sorry Damien’, she said, ‘but the only thing we can do for your mental health is give you the phone number of a service to call once you’re released. There’s no funding for therapy for general inmates in prison. My job is just to assess the mental health of inmates, not to treat it.’

Two months into a 10-month prison sentence, I was placed in solitary confinement after having a nervous breakdown. I’d originally made a fruitless attempt to keep my breakdown to myself, because I’d been told what would happen if Corrective Services found out I was having mental health issues.

One of the first friends I made in prison, like many of the inmates, was suicidal. ‘The best advice I can give you if you’re struggling with your mental health’, he told me, ‘is to do everything you can to keep it from the officers. If they find out how depressed I am, they’ll follow the Corrective Services handbook for dealing with that. Which means they’ll put me on suicide watch until they’re convinced I’m not going to make them fill out a heap of forms by killing myself. Then they’ll take my single cell away from me, and put me back in a two-man cell, so that another inmate can do their job for them.’

The theory is if you try to kill yourself in a two-man cell, your cell-mate will alert the officers. In reality, probably half the problems in prison could be resolved if everyone had their own cell, and wasn’t fighting over space. Remember what it was like being confined to your house during COVID lockdown? Now imagine instead of being stuck in your house, you’re locked in a room that’s smaller than your laundry, with a complete stranger. There’s no internet, no phone, and when one of you needs to take a shit, there’s also no privacy.

The extent of my breakdown meant I could only make the most perfunctory efforts to pretend things were normal. The correctional officers, some of whom were genuinely concerned, quickly noticed. Once I’d come to their attention, and against the advice I’d been given, I decided to be honest about how bad my mental health was. It was a desperate cry for help, but what I effectively got was punishment. Before I