Suicide Behind Bars

National Study of Jail Suicides: 20 Years Later

The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections, released a major study on jail inmate suicides in May 2010. The study showed that there had been dramatic decrease in the rate of suicide in county jails during the past 20 years. The suicide rate in county jails was calculated to be 38 deaths per 100,000 inmates However; suicide is still the single leading cause of unnatural deaths in local jail, at a rate of 38 deaths per 100,000 inmates. This suicide rate is over 3 times greater than that in the general population.

Almost all of these deaths are preventable if correctional officers understand the risk factors for suicide, assess all detainees for suicidal ideation, and take any appropriate measures to protect a suicidal inmate from self harm. Whether you are an arresting officer or a corrections officer, you and your facility are ultimately responsible for your prisoner. In this day of relentless litigation, failure to prevent suicide or respond appropriately to an attempted suicide will inevitably result in a lawsuit.

The staggering statistics

Time and method of jail suicides:

  • 24% occurred within the first 24 hours, 27% between 2 and 14 days, and 20% between 1 and 4 months.
  • 32% occurred between 3:00pm and 9:00pm.
  • 20% of the victims were intoxicated at the time of death.
  • 31% of the victims were found dead more than 1 hour after the last observation.
  • 38% of the victims were held in isolation.
  • 93% of the victims used hanging as the method.
  • Overdoses are the second most common method: hoarded medications, cleaners, etc.
  • Self-inflicted injuries are the third most common: slashing, head banging, intentional falls, etc.
  • CPR was not administered in 37% of incidents.

Suicide victims:

  • 67% were white. Whites committed suicide at 4 times the rate of black (16 per 100,000) and twice the rate of Hispanic inmates.
  • 93% were male. The incarcerated male suicide rate was 1.6 times higher than the female rate; however females attempted suicide twice as often as males.
  • Juvenile offenders placed in adult detention facilities have an eight times greater suicide rate than juveniles housed in juvenile detention facilities.
  • 43% were being held on a personal and/or violent charge. Offenders serving time for homicide, kidnapping, and rape have the highest suicide rates. Drug offenders had the lowest mortality rates from suicide.
  • 47% had a history of substance abuse.
  • 38% had a history of mental illness.
  • 34% had a history of suicidal behavior.
  • 28% had a history of medical problems.

Additional in-custody suicide risk factors

The most common suicide risk factors include a history of mental illness and/or previous suicide attempts, alcohol intoxication or drug usage and/or withdrawal symptoms. Additional high risk situation factors include:

  • A young white male (ages 20-25)
  • A highly publicized case, especially if the inmate was previously in a position of respect
  • First time in custody
  • Charges of spousal or child abuse, incest, or child molestation
  • A harsh or surprising sentence
  • Receiving upsetting news from the outside, especially from family
  • Recent tragedy or personal disturbing events
  • A newly diagnosed or debilitating medical condition
  • Recent inmate vs. inmate conflict
  • Recent disciplinary action
  • Identifying with a culture that considers suicide an honorable response to disgrace
  • Being a victim of physical, sexual or emotional abuse by other inmates or facility staff
  • Currently, over three times the number of people who suffer from mental illness are being held in jails rather than hospitals. The NCIA study reported that over the past 20 years the number of mentally ill inmates who commit suicide has increased from 19% to 38% percent.
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