In the countries of south-east Europe, the suicide rate in prisons is somewhat lower than the European average. If we look at the period between 2011 and 2015, the Balkans had an average of 53 cases of suicide for every 100,000 prisoners each year, while for the rest of Europe that average was 87. The data is recorded annually by the Council of Europe and published after a process of detailed scrutiny, to ensure reliability; data on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo is not currently available.

Furthermore, in the Balkans there is a relatively small difference difference between the suicide rate among prisoners, and the rate among the general population (prisoners are about 5 times more likely to commit suicide than their compatriots). In other European countries, such as France, Belgium and Norway, the probability that a prisoner commits suicide is much higher – 10 times more likely, to be precise, than their fellow citizens. Does it necessarily follow that the treatment of prisoners in the Balkans is better than in the rest of Europe?

Suicides in prison compared to the general population

Caution in drawing conclusions should be encouraged by the differences in composition between the prison population in the Balkans and in the rest of Europe, which help to explain at least in part the differences in behaviour. Various studies in fact reveal significant correlations between the general profile of prisoners and their suicide rate: self-inflicted violence tends to be more frequent in prison systems where the rate of imprisonment is low – that is to say, where fewer people are incarcerated. In these cases, those who find themselves in prison due to being ineligible for alternative punishment are often people with serious psychological problems, or who are socially marginalised, and are therefore particularly vulnerable. Prison suicides tend to be more frequent where there is extensive use of preventive detention: it is found that those most at risk are prisoners just recently arrested, or awaiting trial.

In Balkan countries the rate of imprisonment is relatively high – the prisons are therefore not populated by particularly vulnerable people – and at the same time the use of preventive detention is rather low. The combination of these factors makes the prison population in these countries less exposed to the risk of suicide, relative to the rest of Europe.

The imprisonment rate in Europe

Despite this broadly positive picture for the region, there exist striking national differences. For example, the prison suicide rate is extremely low in Croatia (19 cases a year per 100,000 prisoners, perfectly in line with the rest of the population – a unique example in Europe), while it is more than five times greater in neighboring Slovenia.

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