10 warning signs of suicidal inmates

Nearly a quarter of jail suicides occur within the first 24 hours of incarceration

Suicide continues to be the leading cause of death in the nation’s jails, with rates of jail suicide being four times higher than that of the general public.

More than a third of those who commit suicide have a history of suicidal behavior and nearly 40% have a history of mental illness – rates that are much higher than 20 years ago, which could reflect the changing nature of our inmate population.

As correctional officers and leaders, we have a moral obligation to protect our inmates because we are responsible for their safety. While there may be situations we can’t prevent, we want to know we did everything in our power to stop someone from taking their own life while in our custody. Suicide prevention is possible.

A mental illness poster is seen in the intake room of the Dane County Jail Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Madison, Wis.
A mental illness poster is seen in the intake room of the Dane County Jail Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Initial Signs and Symptoms

Suicide prevention starts with your intake screening. Here are 10 things intake officers should look for:

1. Family suicide: Several studies have indicated suicidal behavior may in part be genetically transmitted. Inmates who have experienced the suicide of a family member or a loved one (both in or out of jail) may be at higher risk.

2. Same-sex rape: Being the victim of same-sex rape during a prior incarceration is linked to higher suicide risk. While we don’t understand the exact reason, rape victims often struggle with guilt and self-doubt that could be enhanced in a jail environment.

3. Significant health problems: Diagnosis of a significant health problem or terminal illness can increase an inmate’s feeling of hopelessness.

4. Substance abuse: There is a known connection between intoxication and suicide. Additionally, addicts who know they are going to get cut off have a strong fear of withdrawal that can push them to suicide.

5. Recent significant loss: The loss of a job, the break-up of an important relationship, or death of a family member, even if completely unrelated to the arrest, can significantly impact the inmate’s mental and emotional health.

6. Past incarceration: There can be clues in an individual’s incarceration records – not just the why and when, but also what happened during their sentence.

7. Severe guilt or shame: The inmate may be fixated on how the crime they are accused of will be regarded by others. Watch for phrases such as “What will my wife say?” or “What will my family think?”

8. Severe sentence: Those facing potentially long sentences based on the severity of the accused crime (sexual crimes, homicide, etc.) may not see a reason to keep living.

9. Talking about death: Statements about death or loss should alert you to possible suicidal ideation. Less obvious but equally indicative are statements final in nature, such as “I can’t take it anymore” or “I’m never going recover from this.”

10. Agitation or aggressiveness: This may be a sign the individual is wrestling with emotions they can’t control. These feelings are associated with increased physiological arousal, which may lead to careless decision-making and irrational thinking. Alternatively, the person may be very calm if they’ve already decided to take their own life.

Ongoing Observations

In addition to the signs and symptoms to look for at intake, correctional officers need to be constantly aware of behaviors that may indicate an inmate’s mental state is deteriorating. For instance, an inmate who was normally sociable may turn hostile or show signs of extreme sadness like crying and loss of interest in people or activities, rarely leaving their cell. They may also exhibit self-harming behaviors such as cutting, burning, scratching, head banging or ingesting foreign objects.

Lastly, a strong indicator of a potentially imminent suicide is an inmate giving away their possessions or commissary privileges to other inmates or using phrases such as “I’m not going to be here much longer.”

Additional Risk Factors

Nearly a quarter of jail suicides occur within the first 24 hours of incarceration, but there are also specific situations that should put correctional officers on high alert. They include:

  • Conflict: Interpersonal conflicts with other inmates, including the occurrence or threat of rape, may push an inmate over the emotional edge.
  • Disciplinary sanctions/segregation: Many inmates can handle general population, but once they are admitted into segregation or isolated, it greatly affects their psyche. Undesired unit placements can also trigger suicidal activity.
  • Court dates: 33% of jail suicides occur within proximity to court hearings, and of those, 69% occurred within 2 days before or after the hearing.
  • Communication: Visits or phone calls from family and friends, especially if they involve the receipt of bad news, can trigger suicidal behavior. Imagine being incarcerated and then hearing, “This is the last time I’m coming to see you” or, “You’re out of my life, I’m not going to be with you anymore.” More than 20% of suicides occurred within proximity to a telephone call or visit, and of those, 67% occurred less than one day from the call or visit.
  • Anniversary dates: Family-related anniversaries, birthdays of children or spouses, or deaths of family members are all linked to increased risk of inmate suicide. Seasonal holidays did not account for more suicides, contrary to common belief.
  • Impending release: While it may seem inmates should welcome release, it can carry powerful fears, especially for those with mental illness or lacking a support system outside of the jail. Some individuals are completely institutionalized and function better in a correctional facility than on the street.

Denial of suicidal ideation or intent by an inmate does not mean there is no risk or it’s acceptable for a correctional officer to do nothing – but it is not the officer’s job to diagnose. If you see signs and symptoms that may point to a suicide risk, your responsibility is to immediately refer the person for a mental health evaluation and take precautions to manage the present risk until qualified mental health services can intervene. Avoid instructions to others (“Hey, watch this one closely”) in lieu of requesting help. If someone needs watching, they need a referral to mental health services or medical professionals. Remember: “When in doubt, refer it out!”

For more about suicidal inmates, watch this on-demand webinar: Preventing Jail Suicides: Best Practices & Policy Considerations

All statistics taken from National Study of Jail Suicide: 20 Years Later, written by Lindsay M. Hayes and published by the National Institute of Corrections.

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