Jail and prison suicide rates in the United States are much higher than rates for those who are not incarcerated. Jail suicide rates are more than four times the national average, while prison rates are somewhat elevated at one and a half times greater. Juvenile facilities also have a problem with suicide. Although jail/prison suicide has decreased significantly since the 1980s, jail/prison suicide still results in the loss of a life and causes stress to correctional workers, others prisoners, and family members.
Jails, Prisons, and Juvenile Facilities Defined
Jail and prisons are often confused with each other. In the United States jail systems are typically operated by cities and counties, while prisons are operated by states and the federal government. With some exceptions, jail systems are operated by locally elected sheriffs who must spend their time involved with law enforcement deputies and corrections. Jails are where everyone goes when they first become incarcerated. Jails house people who will be there for a few hours due to petty crimes, people awaiting trial, and those sentenced who are serving their time. Each state operates a prison system, and one is also operated by the federal government. Prisons receive people after they have been processed by the courts and spent time in jail. Prisoners may have been convicted of a new crime or violated terms of their probation or parole. Prisons may house people for a couple of years or for the rest of their lives, but the populations who are housed in prisons are much more stable, with fewer people entering and exiting each day. The Department of Corrections operates prisons in each state; this is very different than jails, which are typically operated by a local official. Juvenile facilities house those who are under 18 and are operated by a state juvenile justice office.
Jail, Prison, and Juvenile Confinement Suicide Correlates
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there are many correlates of adult jail/prison and juvenile confinement suicides, as follows:
- In 2010, suicide in jail accounted for one-third of all deaths among jail detainees. Suicide took the lives of more people than any other killer. Heart disease was the second-highest, accounting for 26 percent of deaths. Drug and alcohol intoxication accounted for 6 percent of jail deaths, while cancer was responsible for 4 percent. Suicides committed in prison from 2001 through 2010 accounted for less than 7 percent of total deaths in all years.
- Jail suicide rates are more than twice as high for those detainees aged 55 or older than for those who were between 18 and 24 years old. This held true for the period from 2000 to 2010.
- White jail detainees were five times more likely to kill themselves than black detainees and three times more likely than Hispanic inmates (in 2010).
- From 1983 to 2002 the jail suicide rate decreased by more than 60 percent. However, the rate of jail suicide continues to be more than three times the rate of prison suicide.
- Small jails (with 50-plus detainees) had a suicide rate five times that of large jails (with 2,000-plus detainees).
- Males incarcerated in jails had a suicide rate about one and a half times that of females (2000–10). Among those who are not in jail and prison, males have a suicide rate of about three to four times more than that of females.
- Jail suicides are much more likely to occur during the first week after admission, with nearly half of all jail suicides taking place at this time. This is not the case with prisoners in state facilities.
- Hanging was the most common method of suicide in jail as well as prison.
- Juvenile confinement suicides were more likely among white and Native American youth and less likely among black and Hispanic youth.
- Juvenile-confinement suicide was more likely to happen after a long confinement (nearly two years) than after a short stay.
- Boys were not more likely than girls to commit suicide in juvenile confinement.
- More than 98 percent of youth killed themselves by hanging.
Jail and prison suicides have many of the sociodemographic characteristics of suicides that take place among those who are not incarcerated. Males commit more suicides than females. Older people commit more suicides than younger people. Whites commit more suicides than nonwhites. Youth-confinement suicides have similar correlates.
One particularly interesting point is that adult males who are incarcerated have a suicide rate one and a half times that of females, but among those who are not incarcerated males have a suicide rate three times that of females who are not incarcerated. Among youth, there is no relationship between gender and suicide. In both instances suicide in confinement is impacted less by gender than in the general U.S. population.
From the data described above, it is most likely that if an adult is going to kill him or herself while incarcerated, they are going to do it in jail during the initial part of their stay, but juveniles will commit suicide after a long stay. It is interesting to note, however, that small jails have a suicide rate that is five times that of large jails. This would certainly indicate that the type of facility is important in understanding suicide among incarcerated people. Despite the elevated rate of suicide among incarcerated people, those who kill themselves in jail or prison are similar to nonincarcerated people when it comes to race, gender, and age.
Prevention of Jail and Prison Suicide
Lindsay Hayes, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, has been the leading figure in correctional suicide prevention for more than two decades. He has several suggestions as to how a correctional organization should develop written policies to address suicide in the institution:
- Training: All staff working with prisoners should receive eight hours of training in the first year, with follow-up in subsequent years. Training should include information about suicide, attitudes of staff about suicide, warning signs, prevention techniques, and liability issues.
- Identification/screening: Staff should receive training about the various suicide risk factors screened for upon entry, such as previous suicide attempts, family stressors, and previous mental health treatment, to name a few.
- Communication: The correctional facility staff needs to make sure that the administration, staff, and detainees are communicating well. Problems communicating can result in a suicide.
- Housing: Detainees who are at risk for suicide should be housed in an area or cell that does not increase their chances of suicide. Shoelaces should be removed, as should belts. A cell or area near staff is the preferred location for housing suicide-prone inmates. Physical restraints should be used only as a last resort.
- Levels of supervision/management: Those who are suicidal or have risk factors for suicide should be closely and constantly observed. Close supervision is for those who are not actively suicidal but who have risk factors, while constant observation is required for those who are actively suicidal, such as those threatening suicide.
- Intervention: Staff should be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and each unit should have the appropriate tools (e.g., first aid kit, tool to cut through materials).
- Reporting: There should be an adequate reporting system, with all staff members involved in an incident making a statement.
- Follow-up/mortality-morbidity review: Completed suicides as well as serious attempts need to have a follow-up to include all relevant information such as precipitating factors and a review of training and procedures.
The amount of jail and prison suicide has decreased a great deal since the 1980s. The rate of jail suicide is much higher than the prison suicide rate, which is higher than the general U.S. population. Suicide among incarcerated adults and juveniles follows similar age, race, and gender patterns of the U.S. population. One of the most notable differences between adult and juvenile-confinement suicide is when it occurs: after a short stay for adults and after a long stay for juveniles. Suicide is not inevitable in any situation, including incarceration. Lindsay Hayes, an expert on jail and prison suicide, has provided practical recommendations to reduce the number of suicides among those who are incarcerated. These recommendations include training staff to understand and recognize signs of a potential suicide, screening people who could be suicidal upon their arrival at the institution, communication among various staff members, proper housing and supervision, being prepared to intervene properly, proper reporting, and follow-up meetings after serious suicide attempts or completed suicides.
- Hayes, Lindsay. “Characteristics of Juvenile Suicide in Confinement.” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (February 2009).
- Hayes, Lindsay. “New Mexico Counties Seminar Notes on Jail Suicide” (2011). http://www.nmcounties.org/Jail%20Suicide%20Prevention%20Seminar%20Handouts_March%202011.pdf (Accessed March 2013).
- Noonan, Margaret L. “Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2010: Statistical Tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (2012). http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4558 (Accessed October 2013).
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