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Prisons Urged To Find Sheet Replacement After A Number Of Suicides

CONTENT WARNING: This piece discusses suicide, including methodology.

Prisons are being urged to replace bedding with tear-resistant sheets after a number of suicides.

A coronial inquest in NSW recommended Corrective Services and prison operator MTC-Broadspectrum explore options for tear-resistant sheets for inmates in regular cells.

Safety blankets, which cannot be torn, are used in assessment cells, where prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm are placed.

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However, these blankets are "notoriously uncomfortable" due to the metallic thread running through the fabric, the court heard.

Nine inmates at the Parklea Correctional Centre took their own lives between 2010 and May 2017. In each case, a rope had been fashioned from bed linen.

All nine inmates were cleared for normal cell placement, highlighting the importance of minimising suicide risk even with inmates not considered to be at risk.

"If there is a viable alternative [to regular bedding] this would represent a useful suicide mitigation strategy," deputy state coroner Elizabeth Ryan said.

Concerns over Parklea's bunk beds -- which include open-style railings at the side and ends of each bunk -- have been noted since at least 2012, but Ryan concluded that replacing existing bunk beds with a newer design is not feasible due to practicality and financial barriers.

parklea correctional services prison
A supplied image of raids at the Parklea Correctional Centre in 2017. Photo: AAP.

"With reluctance, I have come to the view that however necessary and desirable it is that there be mitigation presented by the existing bunk beds ... it would not be feasible to make the recommendation sought," she said.

However, Parkland's new facility appears to have clearly mitigated hanging risks, by pointedly not using bunk beds in its two-bed cells. The facility is expected to house about 400 to 500 more inmates and will open later this year.

"It is evident even from the perspective of a layperson that the designs, if adopted, would reduce many of the risks ... in the older style cells," Ryan said.

The mandatory inquest was called after the death of a Grafton man who can only be identified as 'L', who was incarcerated in September 2015 while awaiting trial on child sex charges.

L had been placed in an assessment cell after a self-harm incident in May 2016, which had both safety blankets and minimal fittings which provide almost no opportunities for hanging points.

A few days later, he was transferred to a regular cell as part of a "two-out cell placement", which means he had regular bedding but was not to be left alone at any time.

Two weeks later, at his own request and after a previous application had been denied, he was given normal cell classification once again.

It meant that he was left alone in his cell a month later, on June 14, when his cellmate was out all day at a court appearance. It was then that he was able to hang himself in his cell. 

"He actively sought mental health services and did what he could to maintain his work as a sweeper," Ryan said, noting that his job was a safeguard for his wellbeing.

"Sadly, his situation overwhelmed him."

In a statement, Corrective Services NSW extended its sympathies to the friends and family of the man whose death instigated this inquest and said it is reviewing the coroner's findings.

"We supported the coronial investigation and have co-operated fully with the coroner," a spokesperson said.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression or suicide contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.