of social dilemmas. Although not in constant public scrutiny, suicide is a serious problem which has seemed to
have lost importance. When suicide is coupled with arrest and incarceration it
becomes an increasingly complex situation. In fact, research indicates that the jail
suicide rate ranges from 2.5 to 13 times greater than the rate of the general
population (Winkler 1992). Motivation, prediction, and prevention of suicidal
behavior are grossly unclear, which only adds to the already existing complexity.
Many factors involved with arrest and incarceration only serve as a catalyst of
suicidal tendencies. Suicide is the primary cause of death in this countrys jails.
In 1986 there were 401 successful jail suicides (Winkler 19992).
There are many general assumptions made in regard to suicide. Most believe
suicide to be caused by mental illness such as major depression or bipolar disorder.
Another belief is that the emotional escalation leading to action takes place over a
long period of time. Such is not the case in jail suicides. Much of the research
shows that of all jail suicides occur within the first twenty four hours of
incarceration, and an overwhelming number of these take place in the first three
hours of isolation which is referred to as the crisis period (Hess 1987). The
crisis period is reflective of arrest and incarceration as producing extreme
confusion, fear, and anxiety. The crisis period is also the result of isolation.
Isolation causes an individual to lose all social support systems. Placing an
individual in isolation may be a form of protection, but this gives the individual an
opportunity to concentrate on feelings of hopelessness (Winkler 1992). Hopelessness
can be defined as the presence of despair and negative feelings about the future
(Shneidman 1987).Isolation can also produce a severe threat to those inmates who have
difficulty with coping abilities as this only encourages future deterioration.
Undoubtedly, isolation is often necessary to contain a person, or to prevent injury
to the individual and, or other inmates. Individuals who are experiencing obvious
mental stress should certainly not be held in isolation for obvious reasons.
According to Hess (1983),many facilities have regulations which state,The
action taken must be responsible under the circumstances and represent a good-faith
judgment that the action was the least restrictive alternative
available.Regulations such as this not only serve as a guideline for officers, but
as a preventive measure against legal action as a result of isolation. Aside from
these emotional factors of the physical environment which are impetus of suicidal
attempts. Isolation cells more often than not tend to have poor lighting,
ventilation, and the surroundings are extremely noisy (Winkler 1992). The are minor
modifications which can be made to reduce risk. These include removal of bars, sinks,
or any other object which may facilitate a suicide attempt (Kunzman 1992).
There are certain characteristics of the act of jail suicide. The major
characteristic which seems to be consistent in almost all cases is that the method
used is hanging. In fact, according to Hess(1983), 96% of the jail suicides are
successfully completed in this fashion and the instruments most often used are
clothing, bedding, shoelaces, or belts. This trend is attributed to the fact that
other avenues for suicide are not available. In cases which officers are aware of the
persons fragile mental state, attempts are made to extinguish the availability of
instruments. This is done by stripping the inmate of clothing, and, or accessories.
All too often the objects and particularly the mental states are overlooked. Since
this does occur, officers now carry the Stephans 9-11 knife which can
effectively cut through sheets, bedding, belts, and other material (Winkler 1992).
Some other rather interesting statistics have been compiled regarding the jail
suicide act in reference to month, day and time in which it is most likely to occur.
The majority of inmates commit suicide between the hours of midnight and eight A.M.,
usually occurring on a Saturday in the month of September (Winkler 1992). The acts
take place at these specific times and days due to the fact that officer supervision
is greatly decreased at these intervals. Despite the fact that supervision is so
decreased, the victims are usually found within 15 minutes.
Research has also been consistent in identifying other typical aspects of the
jail suicide. The prominent factors are age, race,, marital status, and type of
offense. The person is usually a 22 year old single whit male who has been arrested
for an alcohol related offense . Many times an individual who is incarcerated because
of a murder offense is automatically placed on suicide watch.The Federal Bureau of
Prisons has warned local jailers that persons held for murder or any other offense
involving possible death penalty be watched closely for any suicidal
tendencies(Winkler 1992). Jail suicide in this case is usually caused by extreme
feelings of remorse, particularly if the death of a relative is involved. Other
characteristics include being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the
time of the arrest, the individual having no significant prior arrest, and being held
in an urban county jail.
Many feel correctional officials are responsible for an inmates well being. If
this is the case, such personal characteristics as listed above are enormously
inadequate to form a prediction judgment, and apply techniques to offenders who are
at risk for a suicide attempt. These characteristics are especially inadequate
considering the fact they also represent much of the general inmate population.
Officers are unquestionably the key players in prevention. Considering the fact that
78% of jail suicides show no prediction signs at the time of intake (Winkler 1992).,
new standards need to be implemented. Accurate predictions are not the only aspect
needing regulation. According to research(1986),an inmate suicide prevention
program must address the four Ps of prevention: 1). Profile, 2). procedure, 3).
personnel, 4). physical environment.
Winkler contends that if a standardized profile is to be operational, it needs
to be limited to a manageable numbers of features. The Lane County Adult Correctional
Center (LCACC), located in Oregon, has implemented new regulations in regard to
suicide profiles. Reports say that this profile includes:suicidal statements
these are not to be taken lightly, and officers are instructed to dispel the myth
that those who talk of suicide will not attempt prior attempts-inmates who have
previously attempted suicide are at a much greater risk:depression this especially
applies to the concept of hopelessness mentioned earlier:intoxication-reports reveal
60% of victims had been intoxicated;mental/emotional disturbances-the mentally ill
are at a much greater risk;crisis event-this is an event which the inmate feels to be
life shattering (although it is impossible to know what the inmate is feeling,
officers must keep some sense of sympathy to be able to relate to the individual);
and time in custody as mentioned before, most suicides occur within the first 24
The second and third component, procedure and personnel are interrelated.
Inmates coming through the intake process should be assessed by officers using a
questionnaire regarding medical history, mental health status and history, and
security issues. All of the corrections staff who are involved in the intake process
should be formally educated in identifying and dealing with at risk offenders.In
addition to standard correctional staff, personnel should include specially trained
mental health professionals either staff or on call.(Winkler 1992)
The last component, physical environment was mentioned earlier. Aside from the
suggested structural modifications, many authorities believe suicidal inmates should
be placed in group housing. Placing suicidal inmates in a group housing
environment often solves the problem of isolation, and offers an available social
support structure. This also implements an intervention techniques by avenue of other
inmates physically stopping the attempt, or alerting officers. Prevention techniques
thus far have considerable lack of imagination, and cooperation.
The United States is neglecting its responsibility for jail suicides.As of
1989, only 13 of 35 states responding to a survey had prevention standards for
jails.(Kunzman 1995) Nationwide prevention standards need to be implemented so as
to not only reduce the several hundred deaths per year attributed to jail suicides,
but also prevent legalities. Legal actions cost money, time and more importantly,
they disrupt the fundamental objective of the criminal justice system. Disruptions of
the system in this way may cause correction officers to view inmates with high risk
factors as a burden of liability. There are various cost efficient methods for
reducing suicides such as cell structure modification, or double cell occupancy. The
most cost effective method is instilling sensitivity in correctional personnel.
Understanding, relating, and simply speaking to an inmate as a human being may save a