The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 23, 2015

What we know about jail suicides

July 23, 2015

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As the FBI investigates whether Sandra Bland’s untimely death in a Texas jail was a murder or a suicide, the fact remains that jail suicide is a very serious issue that requires targeted attention in corrections facilities. Research points to important takeaways when it comes to keeping inmates safe from harm, both self-inflicted and violence perpetrated by others in the facility.

The facts about jail suicides

Suicide is the leading cause of death in jails, accounting for 29 percent of inmate deaths between 2000 and 2009. Suicide rates are 2.6 times higher among local jail populations when compared with state prison populations, and 4.4 times higher than the rest of Americans. And compared with non-incarcerated women, women in jail are five times more likely to take their own lives. Inmates are most at risk for suicide when they first arrive at a facility, when they receive bad news, and around the holidays.

In order to prevent these terrible events, we have to understand the environment in which they happen. Research has shown that overcrowded maximum-security facilities and units housing less than 50 inmates have higher rates of suicide. The vast majority of suicides take place in the jail cell, usually when the person is alone and unsupervised; often involving bed sheets or sharp objects.

How can we prevent jail suicides?

Improve facilities: Some efforts to prevent jail suicides have focused on minimizing opportunity from an environmental design standpoint—for instance, by removing electrical outlets, exposed pipes, hinges, bed sheets, or other objects that could be used for self-harm. However, measures should be taken to avoid over-institutionalizing the space and to maintain “ordinary” living conditions, like providing natural light, so as not to exacerbate a person’s distress or suicidal ideations upon experiencing confinement. 

Use video monitoring: Placing cameras in cells to monitor inmates would violate privacy requirements, but strategic placement in other areas to see who enters or exits a cell could aid investigations of inmate harm. Plus, recordable cameras in jail units might increase inmates’ perceptions of safety.

Address and prevent sexual and physical violence: Victims of sexual and physical assaults are more likely to harm themselves and attempt suicide. Preventing these types of violence in correctional facilities is important in reducing self-harm and suicide because inmates who are repeatedly victimized sometimes view taking their lives as the only way to stop it. Some correctional administrators argue that policies and practices to prevent sexual victimization are actually useful in preventing all victimizations.

Improve correctional health care: Urban Institute’s own research on safety in jails conducted by Nancy La Vigne and colleagues found that improving access to and the quality of correctional health care may also lower the risk for self-harm. Many inmates expressed dissatisfaction with the health care they received and encountered challenges accessing mental health care and prescription medicines. With an estimated 60 percent of inmates in local jails having a symptom of a mental disorder, adequately addressing health care needs could go a long way in lowering the risk of suicide.

Employ top-notch staff: A professional and accountable corrections staff is the linchpin for creating a safe jail environment. Corrections administrators should seek ways to train, motivate, and incentivize officers to approach their jobs with the highest degree of professionalism and implement accountability and performance measures. Whether it’s making frequent rounds or engaging one-on-one to check on inmates who may be experiencing distress and connecting them with appropriate care, the ability of correctional staff to conduct their jobs with skill, compassion, and professionalism is critical to preventing jail suicides.

An inmate at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

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