Prison suicide is at its highest rate in the UK for nine years. An investigation by The Guardian last year revealed that in the year 2013-2014, 125 prisoners killed themselves in 20 months. That's more than six a month.Reading these statistics I wondered how my father survived such a long time inside without an attempt to take his life. He served his many sentences at a time when prison was a lot tougher than my time inside in the 80's. There were times when I came close to taking my own life.
The current UK prison system appears to be in crisis. According to figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform, some prisons in the UK have seen a reduction in staffing levels of up to 40% and between 2009 and 2013, self-harm has increased by 26%, totalling 17,213 incidents.
In the end, unable to cope with 'normal' life outside prison, my father did take his life. Suicide has been a ghost at my side since I was a teenager. Staying away from crime and drugs, moving on and growing up, requires a fierce determination and staunch support from friends, family and the whole community. Without these, I would be in the ground by now.
In 1999 I worked with a group of men looking to offer younger men in trouble the chance to find a way in to a better life. This led to the founding of the charity abandofbrothers (ABoB) in 2008. This ground-breaking organisation offers a new way to address issues arising from mental ill health, crime and addiction. A new way based on an ancient model of providing community driven rites of passage for young men; a positive alternative for those trying to initiate themselves through crime and violence.
Co founder and CEO of ABoB, Nathan Roberts believes that the whole of society must help these young men emerge from extreme life circumstances.
"The majority of offenders are also victims, deeply scarred by their traumatic experience of life. Often, hurt people will hurt people, either themselves or others. We believe that society has a responsibility not to punish and manage offenders but to be humble enough to recognise that a great deal of our success or failure is determined by the conditions in the first 20 years of life."
I was honoured to meet participant and now a volunteer staff man, Lucas on a recent ABoB mentor training programme dubbed 'Beyond the Hero'.
"When I first arrived at Rochester young offender institute I was put in a cell where a young man had taken his life a few weeks before. I got involved with ABoB soon after my release having served nine months for GBH. I was assessed for The Quest weekend."This is the first course for young men who want to get involved.
"I'd been researching different ways of taking my own life. Knowing there's men on the outside that care without judging why I'm in prison is a start. By showing those who are thinking about taking their lives that they aren't alone will help those in need, feel some worth."
Abandofbrothers are now part of the MTC Novo consortium who have been awarded the contract to run Criminal Rehabilitation Company services (CRC's) in London and the Thames Valley. Whilst the privatisation of this part of the probation service has been highly controversial, Roberts assures
"we will work with any organisation committed to the same goals as ours. Our experience thus far is very positive. This is due in no small part to the passion and determination of both the MTC Novo team and the probation staff."
ABoB founder, Michael Boyle believes prison can be seen as a way out for those suffering in society.
"Suicide in prison is a tragic reflection of our society's failure. Young men in such despair should never be disregarded and isolated. We help those released from prison to focus on their preferred choices, supporting them in taking slow but sure steps in that direction. A return to prison can look a reasonable choice when there is no vivid, realistic and attractive alternative."
In what feels like a tidal wave of societal change, the task at hand can feel overwhelming. ABoB have a unique approach and Roberts believes collaboration is the only way forward."
We cannot do this alone. We need to work together with open hearted determination to make a difference in these men's lives, in the lives of the entire community."
This dynamic and inspiring organisation is holding up a torch in a dark time. Increasingly, men of all ages are now beginning to follow this guiding light.
Caspar Walsh is an author, journalist and founder of the award winning charity,
Write to Freedom. His latest novel on gang warfare is, Tribe Warrior.