News and Tribune

Breaking News

Community News Network

September 4, 2013

Crime blog: Why is it so easy for prisoners to commit suicide?

NEW YORK — Ariel Castro apparently hanged himself in his prison cell Tuesday night, one month into the life-plus-1,000-years sentence he received for kidnapping three Cleveland women and holding them captive for a decade. Though Castro was in protective custody, which meant that somebody checked on him every 30 minutes, he was still able to commit suicide without anybody noticing. In a post for Slate, Josh Voorhees noted that "the most obvious question now facing prison officials is how the 53-year-old managed to hang himself while in protective custody." It might be an obvious question, but it's not an unfamiliar one. Prisoners commit suicide all the time - and corrections officials are hard-pressed to stop it.

In a recent report on mortality rates behind bars, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that suicide was by far the largest single cause of death in local jails from 2000 to 2011. (The suicide stats were much lower for state prisons during that same timespan, but, even so, a state prison inmate was about three times more likely to die from suicide than from homicide.) Most of these suicides were hangings. But unlike a gallows, which will snap your neck and kill you quickly, prison hangings are often drawn-out affairs in which the inmate maintains contact with the ground and slowly asphyxiates to death. Theoretically, many of these suicides could have been prevented if corrections officials would have noticed them in time. But America's jails and prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, and consequently there is much that goes unnoticed.

While a suicide watch will reduce the risk that a given inmate will kill himself, it can't eliminate that risk entirely. As Daniel Engber wrote for Slate in 2005, in many states, a suicide watch basically means that corrections officials put the prisoner in an observation room and visit him at random intervals to make sure he is still alive. The prisoner is often watched by closed-circuit camera, too, but cameras sometimes have blind spots, and the footage is not always monitored closely. In acute cases, suicide watches can involve 24-hour in-person surveillance, but that's too expensive to maintain indefinitely.

Could better technology help jails and prisons prevent more inmate suicides? In a recent report sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, researchers from GE described a prototype Doppler radar-based alert system that could help "indicate a suicide attempt in-progress by observing and interpreting motion related to heartbeat, breathing, and limb movement." The system would be installed in jail cells, and when it detected physiological responses to asphyxiation - "spontaneous gasping, struggling associated with the mental anguish of oxygen starvation (dyspnea), and sudden changes to or absence of heartbeat and breath" - it would alert corrections personnel, who would then come and revive the inmate.

I don't know whether this Doppler system is truly effective, although GE's initial tests seem promising. But I do think these sorts of technological solutions are worth exploring in greater depth, because people who want to stop suicide behind bars need all the help they can get.

               

      

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 29, 2014

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

LOCAL MAGAZINES
Easter 2014 photos


Click on any photo to purchase it.

SPECIAL CONTENT
Twitter Updates
Follow us on twitter
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
AP Video
Texas Scientists Study Ebola Virus Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow Southern Accent Reduction Class Cancelled in TN Raw: Deadly Landslide Hits Indian Village Obama Chides House GOP for Pursuing Lawsuit New Bill Aims to Curb Sexual Assault on Campus Russia Counts Cost of New US, EU Sanctions 3Doodler Bring 3-D Printing to Your Hand Six PA Cops Indicted for Robbing Drug Dealers Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways Raw: Thousands Flocking to German Crop Circle At Least 20 Chikungunya Cases in New Jersey Raw: Obama Eats Ribs in Kansas City In Virginia, the Rise of a New Space Coast Raw: Otters Enjoy Water Slides at Japan Zoo NCAA Settles Head-injury Suit, Will Change Rules Raw: Amphibious Landing Practice in Hawaii Raw: Weapons Fire Hits UN School in Gaza Raw: Rocket Launches Into Space With Cargo Ship Broken Water Main Floods UCLA
2013 Photos of the year


Take a look at our most memorable photos from 2013.