Series 4 Factsheets
Bullying & Self Harm
Although Denny and Shaz started off by simply wanting to get their own back on Buki for ruining their escape attempt, they have now gone too far. Buki's hard exterior is quite brittle and she can't cope with the constant bullying - but asking for help can also be very difficult.
Bullying is a serious problem in some prisons, particularly those holding young prisoners. It ranges from name calling to serious violence and can include the sort of humiliation Buki endured when Denny and Shaz created a fictional pen-pal for her. A survey carried out on boys under 18 in a Young Offender Institution in January 2000 showed that 70% had been the victim of name calling or hurtful remarks about family, 43.5% had been threatened with violence and 26% had been assaulted by other prisoners in the previous month. In prison bullying can be even more difficult for victims to deal with than in schools or workplaces because there is literally no escape - the bully and the victim are locked in the same space and telling anyone in authority is seen as 'grassing'. Bullying can lead to self-harm or suicide. One study found that one quarter of suicide attempts were linked to prisoner pressure or victimization.
The Prison Service has an anti-bullying strategy which is designed to monitor levels of bullying and deal with the bullies. Each prison has a member of staff who is the anti-bullying co-ordinator, and an anti-bullying committee made up of staff from different disciplines within the prison. Prisons can also involve prisoners as members of their anti-bullying committees and a recent survey by the Prison Reform Trust showed that 20% of prisons do so.
Once bullies have been identified prisons now try to deal with the bully rather than moving the victim. Some prisons have special anti-bullying units where bullies are put on a basic regime and have to earn any privileges. Attitudes which lead to bullying are challenged and prisoners are sometimes put on cognitive skills courses to help them change their behaviour.
The extent to which victims of bullying are offered support varies, but in some prisons there are support groups, and even assertiveness training available for victims.
Buki's response to Denny and Shaz's bullying is to cut herself, as she has done before but this time she hurts herself much more seriously than she had intended.
Women in prison are more than five times more likely to harm themselves than men, and young people are particularly likely to do so. A recent survey found that 10% of women in prison had harmed themselves, during their current imprisonment, without intending to commit suicide. The most risky time is in the first six months in prison, and the most usual methods of self harm are cutting or scratching followed by hanging, strangulation or suffocation. Many also self harm outside prison.
The reasons why women injure themselves in prison are varied and complex. Many are punishing themselves for things they feel they have done wrong. This often includes abuse they have suffered but for which they blame themselves and is linked to poor self-esteem. Others find that self harm gives them an emotional release or even makes them feel powerful - it is something they control when they feel powerless about so much that is happening in their lives.
Buki has self-harmed before, but this time she is doing so because she is being bullied. Prisoners may use self-harm to show their distress at something that is happening to them. It can be a way of gaining attention when it might be difficult to approach staff and tell them.
The Prison Service faces real difficulties in dealing with self harm generally, and particularly women who repeatedly self harm. The strategy is to try to get beyond the self harming and deal with the underlying problems, but in many situations these problems are extremely complex. In the meantime the prisons have to enable prisoners to remain safe and this can mean that they simply try to prevent women having access to the means by which they could harm themselves.
Listeners are prisoners who have been trained by the Samaritans to offer support to other prisoners in distress, particularly those likely to self harm or attempt suicide. They may be seen as more trustworthy by some prisoners because they are also prisoners.
The Prison Service has recently started to use Dialectical Behaviour Therapy with women who self harm and early indications are positive.
More information about self harm among women in prison can be found in 'Repetitive Self-Harm Among Women and Girls in Prison' published by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
For further information on the issues covered in this section, please visit The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website.