Suicide In Jails


The United States is plagued by a countless number 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 country\'s 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 person\'s 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