Ariel Castro committed suicide by hanging himself with a sheet in his cell on September 4th. Although we are not sympathetic with the end of Castro, the issue of prison and jail suicides is important. Over the last thirty years, the suicide rate in prisons decreased dramatically while the suicide rate in jails remained high. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2011 that the suicide rate in local jails was four times that of the rate of prisons. The suicide rate was 43 per 100,000, with fifty percent of them occurring within the first week of admission. In 2011, 35 percent of inmate deaths in jail were the result of suicide.
Suicide rates for state prisoners have decreased from 34 per 100,000 in 1980 to 14 per 100,000 in 2011. The number is almost the same for Americans not incarcerated. The suicide rate for the United States was 12.4 per 100,000 in 2010. This historical decline, Hayes says, is a result of better training and better screening. Lindsay Hayes, the project director for the non-profit National Center on Institutions and an expert in suicide prevention in prisons has reported two major reasons for this disparity; the improvement for prisons and better training and screening.
Unlike inmates in prisons, many of the individuals arrested are jailed for the first time. They are facing uncertainty and fear. A substantial number are also intoxicated or on drugs at the time of their arrest. All of these factors can trigger a volatile emotional response. Many jails lack good training and intake screening practices that prisons have established over the past decades.
Regarding suicide watch – an inmate cannot remain on suicide watch indefinitely since the restrictions are severe. You are stripped of all of your clothes, you wear a safety smock, are only allowed finger food (no utensils), your possessions are removed, and you are isolated. We can hope that jails will improve their record of suicide prevention, but as in the Castro case, you cannot always prevent an inmate suicide.