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Suicide risks after guilty verdicts and felony sentencing

It’s crucial that correctional staff can pinpoint potential triggers for suicidal behavior either during or following court proceedings

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AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

We usually think of inmate suicides occurring inside jail or prison, however, another high-risk area for a suicide attempt is in the courtroom after a guilty verdict or at felony sentencing. Suicide prevention is part of our essential duties as detention deputies in the jail and as bailiffs at the courthouse. We must make a collaborative effort to work together in preventing inmate suicides at the jail or the courthouse as well as during transport between the two. Proper training on what can trigger a suicide attempt and recognizing the signs is essential.

Incident report

A male inmate was standing at the podium in front of a felony court judge for sentencing. The courtroom was filled with attorneys and their clients. Family members and street clients filled the courtroom gallery. One bailiff was between the judge and the podium and the other bailiff was at the backdoor of the courtroom to prevent escapes and maintain control of the people in the gallery. As the judge handed down a prison sentence to the inmate at the podium, the inmate took a razor blade from his mouth and cut his wrist. Blood went everywhere. Not only was this a suicide attempt but there was now an inmate in the courtroom with a weapon. Knowing their roles when dealing with a critical incident, the bailiffs requested emergency backup via radio. The lead bailiff secured the razor blade and secured the inmate in handcuffs and took him to the holding cell area. The courtroom was evacuated, and medical personnel were summoned.

Suicide prevention steps during court transport and proceedings

Before inmates are transported from jail to court, they must undergo a comprehensive search for any contraband items. When they arrive at the courthouse and before they are allowed into the court holding cells, they should be checked with a metal detector or a hand wand metal detector. There should be a secondary contraband check before the inmate is directed to his or her designated courtroom.

Closely monitor the behavior of the inmate or defendant for any suspicious body language. It is crucial to clearly communicate expectations to the inmate or defendant, and make it known that they are being closely watched.

Any unusual statements or activities by an inmate in court must be promptly reported to the courtroom bailiff. Upon such a report, the bailiff can undertake several actions:

  • Request a continuance from the judge to have the inmate mentally evaluated.
  • Ask for additional support from another bailiff to escort the inmate to and from court.
  • Write an incident report detailing the inmate’s actions and statements. This report will accompany the transport officer back to the jail or can be emailed ahead of the inmate’s return to jail.

Communication between the courthouse and the jail is critical, particularly in preventing suicide. For this reason, a phone call from the courthouse bailiff to the jail shift supervisor should be made to confirm receipt and acknowledgment of the incident report.

Incident report

A female inmate went to family court and was told by the family court judge that he had decided to give full custody of her two small children to another family member. The female inmate became very loud and was screaming and crying. The judge said he had made his final decision until she changed her life for the better. The female inmate was sent back to the jail with no heads-up in writing or verbally on her situation.

At the jail that evening during dorm rounds, a detention deputy found the female attempting suicide by hanging. Her skin and lips were already turning blue. Medical personnel arrived and the inmate survived.

Suicide prevention steps following a court appearance

The steps for suicide prevention following a court appearance are crucial, especially when the court’s decision, although not related to a criminal case, is life-altering for the inmate.

It is the responsibility of the family division bailiff to prepare an incident report that captures the details of the court’s decision, the inmate’s mood and any notable statements made by the inmate. This report should be promptly followed by a phone call to the jail shift supervisor.

Prior to the inmate’s transport back to the jail, or immediately upon their arrival, a mental health evaluation should be conducted. If necessary, the inmate may be placed on suicide watch. Throughout this process, communication remains a key component for ensuring the safety and well-being of the inmate.

Incident report

At the jail, the detention deputy had the morning court list and was calling inmates out to court. One inmate became combative when called, yelling that if forced to go to court he was going to hurt himself and take someone down with him.

Safety measures when an inmate threatens self-harm

When an inmate threatens self-harm, specific safety measures need to be implemented.

First, it’s crucial to contact the courthouse by telephone to inform them about the inmate’s situation. Depending on the situation, the judge may grant a continuance for the court date, allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of the inmate. If the continuance is not allowed, then special arrangements should be made, including the organization of a special escort team and appropriate restraints to ensure the inmate’s safety and security.

Under no circumstances should the inmate be transported to court without the transport officer and courthouse security being fully informed of his or her behavior and attitude, as failing to do so would place everyone involved in a potentially dangerous situation.

Safety steps to take during the reading of a jury verdict

Before the jury enters the courtroom to deliver the verdict, it is essential to request additional bailiffs for security. The defendant should undergo another contraband search before being brought into the courtroom.

When seated, the defendant must be at a clear table, devoid of any items such as pencils or pens, which could potentially be used as weapons. It is important to ensure that the defendant’s attorney does not hand over any contraband items.

During the reading of the verdict, at least one bailiff should be positioned behind the defendant to respond swiftly to any potential outburst, attack, or suicide attempt. Vigilance is critical during these proceedings, as the mental stress from the verdict could trigger an in-court suicide attempt at any moment.

Suicide attempts following guilty verdicts

  • A North Dakota man died by suicide in a courtroom after a guilty verdict. He used a piece of plastic to slash his own throat after the jury left the courtroom.
  • A man took cyanide after a courtroom verdict and collapsed in court. He had been found guilty of arson.

We must always be aware of what is going on in our surroundings. Never underestimate the power of stress on a defendant’s mind. The stress of being in jail with the addition of a felony verdict and sentencing can make anyone at any given time try to harm themselves and others. Stay alert and stay safe!
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Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.