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Ombudsman: Prevention of prisoner suicides urgently demands guidelines

Improvement needed in information flows and procedures
 
The Criminal Sanctions Agency should, as a matter of urgency, draft guidelines on procedures by means of which suicides in prisons can be prevented, Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen recommends.
 
In the Ombudsman's opinion, attention in the guidelines should be focused on identifying prisoners in danger of committing suicide and ways of dealing with them. In addition, the guidelines should cover the flow of information between and among supervisory staff and health care personnel.
 
Cooperation, the division of responsibility and procedural methods between these groups in monitoring prisoners' health and in cases of sudden illness need to be brought into sharper focus. Clear practices are likewise needed when retrospectively examining events associated with a suicide or attempted suicide by a prisoner.

Shortcomings in information flows and division of responsibility

Arising from a suicide by a prison inmate, the Ombudsman earlier conducted a criminal investigation with the aim of ascertaining whether breaches of official duty by prison staff were involved in the case. In his decision, announced in June, he took the view that there was insufficient evidence in the case that breaches of official duty had occurred and he decided not to bring a prosecution. 

On the basis of the criminal investigation, however, the Ombudsman deemed it appropriate to draft a report on the observations that he had made as an overseer of legality and make a general assessment of procedures by means of which prison suicides could be prevented. 

The Ombudsman asked the Criminal Sanctions Agency to inform him, by 14.12.2012, of the measures it has taken in the matter. 

Prison authorities bear great responsibility

The Ombudsman refers in his recommendation to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, in which the authorities have been given great responsibility for monitoring a suicidal prisoner.

The Court has found against the defendants in some judgements that have related to suicides by prisoners. It has stated in the reasons it has presented for its judgements that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights obliges a state not only to refrain from unlawfully depriving persons of their lives, but also to take appropriate measures to safeguard the lives of persons within their jurisdiction. They can extend also to measures by means of which a person is protected from self-caused danger.

The Ombudsman cited the example of the case Jasinska vs. Poland, in which care personnel had testified that medicines had been distributed in accordance with instructions and under their supervision. However, the Court took the view that there must have been some structural defects in the prison's system that had made the prisoner's suicide possible and that Article 2 of the Convention had been breached.

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