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3 ways to increase safety and reduce costs in your facility with a new eating utensil

Decrease the risk of inmates injuring themselves and others by adopting the paperboard EcoSecurity Utensil


Plastic utensils hold great potential for inmates to modify and create deadly weapons for use against officers, staff or themselves, but solutions are available to help corrections administrators reduce the potential for such incidents.

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Sponsored by EcoSecurity Utensil

By Melissa Mann for Corrections1 BrandFocus

An increase in inmate self-harm has placed a spotlight on mental health in prisons and jails. Although inmate self-harm is on the rise in many states, recent data shows that one state, Arizona, has seen a drastic increase in cutting by nearly 50 percent.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, the number of inmates using blunt-force trauma – which can include cutting and ingesting/inserting objects – has almost tripled in a single year.

Correctional facilities face the risk of expensive lawsuits and settlements stemming from these incidents, especially when self-harm results in serious injury or even death. Other potential risks include the cost associated with the implementation of new mental health watch programs and added staffing costs.

However, several solutions are available to help corrections administrators mitigate the risks and costs associated with inmate self-harm and reduce the potential for such incidents.

1. Reduce Materials Available to Make Contraband Weapons and Tools

A simple change in supplies can make a big difference. Where many facilities use silverware or plastic cutlery, an alternative eating utensil is available and made from a material that cannot be melted, molded or sharpened into a weapon.

The EcoSecurity Utensil, or ESU, is a folding spoon made of a slick, moisture-resistant, FDA-approved paperboard, much like a milk carton. The fold creates just enough strength to easily eat a whole meal, but the material is not strong enough to be weaponized.

The ESU can cut through semi-soft foods such as tamale pie, Jell-O and watermelon and even scoop soup or cereal with milk. It is biodegradable and breaks down if swallowed, and it is completely non-weaponizable. Inmates intent on causing harm cannot sharpen it, reducing opportunities to fashion weapons that can be used to harm themselves, other inmates and correctional staff.

2. Reduce the Potential for Self-harm and Suicide

While cases of inmate attacks on staff and fellow inmates, as well as escape attempts, are widely documented, perhaps less well-known are incidents of self-harm, which are particularly common among inmates with mental health issues.

According to a New York City Department of Health study released in 2014, inmates often arrive with histories of mental illness and self-harm. The same study highlighted solitary confinement as a major risk factor, estimating that these inmates are nearly seven times more likely to commit acts of self-harm.

The study further noted that laceration, or cutting, is the most common method of self-harm. The researchers reported that the risk ratio for potentially fatal self-harm among inmates with serious mental illness was more than six self-harm acts per 1,000 days.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in 2015 revealed that suicide was the leading cause of death in local jails and state prisons every year from 2000 to 2013, claiming 34 percent of local jail deaths in 2013 – and the number continues to rise. Many, if not most of these incidents are fueled by manipulated items found in the facility.

Facilities can reduce incidents of self-harm by reducing objects that can be used for cutting and cause harm in swallowing. The EcoSecurity Utensil cannot significantly cut skin, and the paperboard will break down in the digestive system if swallowed.

Providing ESUs to those on suicide or mental health watch status is a safe alternative that can mitigate expensive legal action due to self-injury or alleged mistreatment. One incident of self-harm or suicide is far more costly than thousands of cases of these utensils.

3. Reduce Spending on Lawsuits and Medical Treatment

Few nationwide statistics are available regarding the financial impact of inmate self-harm and suicide on correctional facilities, but the risk of wrongful death lawsuits from inmates’ families is significant. Consider the $1.9 million settlement paid to the family of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas county jail in July 2015, or the $1 million a California state prison was ordered to pay in a similar case. Medical expenses are also a consideration.

Inmates with mental health needs who might be placed in watch cells are often not provided eating utensils with their meals. They may be expected to eat with their fingers or provided a paper cup for scooping their food, measures that may be considered “inhumane” treatment and contribute to deeper depression and disruptive behavior, as well as the potential for lawsuits.

Administrators should look for solutions to mitigate the dangers of inmate-created weapons and the risks and expenses caused by their use, as well as the potential for costly legal action. In general, an incident of inmate self-harm or assault can cost more than $25,000 in medical bills and staff time, and settlements in cases of alleged mistreatment can run in the hundreds of thousands.

Even more costly are wrongful death settlements, as noted above, which often top $1 million. For example, the state of Virginia spent more than $38.6 million between 2010 and 2016 defending and settling claims against correctional facilities, with the most expensive filed by the families of those who died while in custody.

Reducing opportunities for inmates to harm themselves and others by reducing the available potential weapons is a smart way to mitigate this financial risk, as well as provide more humane custody, particularly for those who may be inclined to harm themselves. The EcoSecurity Utensil provides a practical and cost-effective eating utensil that addresses these issues.

Resources for more information on self-harm: