Why Are There More Suicides In Jails Than In Prisons?

Why Are There More Suicides In Jails Than In Prisons?

Suicide prevention of  inmates has been the main focus of my job for the last five years. It is such an important topic because in the United States suicide is the leading cause of death to inmates in jail.

This gets little attention because when most people think about inmates committing suicides, they tend to think about inmates in prison and for obvious reasons:

  • Prisons are usually bigger and overcrowded
  • Inmates in prison are usually there for more violent/serious crimes than inmates in jail
  • Inmate in prison are usually serving longer sentences, sometimes life sentences

While those reasons are valid points, the facts are that inmates in jail are more at risk of suicide than inmates in prison. This is important to know because family members are often shocked when their jailed loved one commits suicide often before they have even been to trial.

One reason jails have a higher suicide rate (46 per 100,000) than prisons (15 per 100,00) is that people who enter jail often face a first-time “shock of confinement” situation. They are suddenly removed from their daily lives, their support system, stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy.

Also for some there is the fear of the unknown and perceived lack of control over the future that causes extreme anxiety and depression. They’re not sure how long they will be incarcerated or if their loved ones will stand by them. That isolation from their family and significant others can cause tremendous anguish for many inmates.

Many have a distrust of an authoritarian environment. They may fear for their safety, of being assaulted physically and/or sexually.  The living conditions and perceived dehumanizing aspects of incarceration are also difficult for many inmates to accumulate to. Some have to strip search in front of officers, are housed with inmates they would never associate with in the outside world and have to deal with the sleeping, showering and using the bathroom in not so private settings.

Depending on the person and the crime, many inmates experience a great sense of shame about being incarcerated. I have met doctors, law enforcement officers, pastors and prominent members of society who got arrested for everything from domestic violence, DUI to child molestation and stalking charges. They all had a very hard time dealing with not only being in jail, but with the affects it had on their social status.

Jails Usually Don’t Know Who They Are Getting

Jails get people right out of their personal lives, meaning that they get severe alcoholics and drug addicts who end up going through excruciating detoxes that sometimes end with them taking their own lives. They get chronically mentally ill individuals who may be off their medication or highly suicidal. They get people in the middle of a divorce or custody battle that they can’t fight from behind bars. Jail staff may not have a clue about these issues until the inmate starts exhibiting symptoms or attempts suicide.

Because jails are getting people right off the streets, they face a higher risk of inmates dying from drug and alcohol related complications as well.

By the time these inmates are sent to prison, the prison staff already have a detailed history of the inmate from the jail. Inmates have been detoxed and ideally mentally ill inmates have been stabilized on medication.  Also, inmates usually have acclimated to being incarcerated and come to terms with what’s ahead for them.

Many inmates who commit suicide do so before they have even been convicted. They’ve already thought of the worse case scenarios, i.e., “My wife is going to leave me”; “I’m going to get beat to death by other inmates”; “I’m gong to get raped”; “I’m going to prison forever” and decided that death was the better alternative.

The rise of inmate suicides is also partially due to the increased number of mentally ill inmates being jailed. Jails have become the new de facto mental health institutions, but they simply are not equipped to handle inmates with serious mental illnesses and other behavioral factors. These inmates are not only at a higher risk of committing suicide, but are at higher risk of being assaulted, raped and taking advantage of by other inmates. They are also more likely to end up in disciplinary confinement situations due to their behavior and lack of understand or following rules. 

It is equally unfair to severely mentally ill inmates and corrections officers who aren’t adequately trained to deal with them.

Educating jail staff on recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health problems to include signs that an inmate may be suicidal is invaluable. Also, addressing a jail culture that may be toxic or conducive to worsening mental health symptoms and increasing the likelihood that an inmate will attempt suicide is crucial.

Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with numerous inmate suicides and attempted suicides.  We never want to lose an inmate to an untimely death, especially one that could have been avoided, no matter if it’s an assault, a medical condition or suicide.

chart

Overcoming Suffering While Incarcerated

Overcoming Suffering While Incarcerated

Working in a correctional setting, I often find myself reciting my favorite quote by Viktor Frankl; “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” The reason this quote appears to have such relevance when dealing with incarcerated people is that many of them see themselves as suffering. They are imprisoned, away from their families and often facing uncertain futures. Many become depressed, anxious, hopeless and unfortunately, suicidal.

When  I speak with inmates who see themselves and their situation as depressing and bleak, I remind them that yes, they may feel like they are suffering, but that is life. A large part of life for most people includes a great deal of suffering. There is joy, and there is pain. I remind them that they are not the only ones suffering. They are incarcerated with hundreds of other individuals going through similar situations and millions of people around the world who are going through their own struggles.

I encourage them to accept the reality of it. Learn from it. Figure out how to use this suffering to become a better, stronger person instead of dwelling on it and allowing it to punish you even more.

There is a popular saying in prisons that goes, “Do time, don’t let time do you”, which means to use your time incarcerated to better yourself, to live life even in the bleakest circumstances and to not just be miserable and unhappy counting down the months, years or even decades until you are released (if ever). Have something to look forward to and remember that suffering doesn’t have to last forever. This situation doesn’t have to be permanent. People find ways to live good, happy lives even while imprisoned for life.

I ask every inmate I evaluate, “What do you have to live for? What are you looking forward to?”  I want to know what will motivate them to not only survive the stressful environment of being in incarcerated, but also what will give them something to hold on to when they start struggling with depressing and negative thoughts.

Many will say they have kids to live for, or they’re young and have their whole lives ahead of them, or their family or goals they want to accomplish. These individuals tend to be much less likely to both get in more trouble while incarcerated as well as are less likely to attempt suicide compared to those who struggle with or can’t find a reason to live.

Lastly, I also try to help inmates to stop seeing themselves as victims. Many inmates think that they are being punished unjustly, or they keep getting arrested because they have bad luck. They blame the system, their friends, society. These inmates are more likely to deal with depression, suicidal thoughts and to become repeat offenders.

Instead, I try to help them see that things happen for them, not to them. Yes they got arrested and it sucks, but maybe this is going to save their lives by getting them off drugs, stop them from associated with that criminal element, teach them that they really do need anger management classes or that they really need to take their psychotropic medications. Hopefully this experience will help them reexamine their lives and make better choices.

When people see things as happening for them, instead of to them, they do time better, easier and even happier. They become inmate workers, earn GEDs and even college degrees while incarcerated. They tend not to look like the typical depressed, angry, bitter inmates that I encounter far to often.

The things I try to teach these inmates are invaluable to helping them survive being incarcerated and they can use it when they are released to hopefully live better lives and to not come back. It can also help all of us understand that we’re not special, things happen, life sometimes sucks, don’t take it personal, don’t dwell on it, learn from it and grow from it. It’s when we get stuck feeling down, victimized, hopeless, worthless and negative that we stop fully living life and start suffering though life. That’s when we start living in a prison of our own construction regardless of if we are incarcerated or not.

Sitting Down With A Killer: Impressions On Interviewing A Psychopath

Today I sat face to with a man who had killed three people and tried to have a fourth person killed, a real psychopath. This wasn’t some disturbed person who lost his mind and killed three people in one violent, rage filled act. This was a man who killed his friends’ girlfriend, then still remained friends with the guy while he grieved over his dead girlfriend. Fast forward three years later, while still friends with the guy, he decides to not only kill him, but also to kill his new girlfriend.

Finally arrested for the murders, from behind bars he tries to elicit the help of another inmate to kill a key witness to the last two murders. This man has no remorse. No real feelings. He’s currently facing two life sentences with yet more charges coming. He is barely 30 and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

psychopathySitting across from me in a big empty room, un-handcuffed, unshackled and unguarded (the nearest officer is two flights of stairs below), this man who is covered in multiple tattoos, some gang related, one reading, American Nightmare, has a very cold disposition. It’s in his frozen eyes and the way he talks as if he couldn’t care less about anything or anyone in the world that reminds me that I am in the room with a man who pretty much has nothing to lose.

I can’t explain the feeling. It’s not fear I feel when he tells me I am asking too many dumb questions, or when he leans in with an attitude of authority as if he were the one in charge of this interview. It’s not even nervousness that I feel, but an awareness that I am in the room with a three time killer, who wouldn’t hesitate to make it four, or five. It’s like being in a room where a poisonous snake is being kept. You’re not necessarily always checking to make sure it’s still there, but you’re always aware of it and its potential to get loose. As he stated, “My life is over, although I am still alive. I’ve had many family and friends die in prison. There is nothing you can say to me.”

And he was right. There wasn’t anything I could say to him to make him “feel better”.  Often times I get called to speak to inmates who get sentenced to long sentences including life. Most of them are already mentally prepared for it, or at least think they are. Very few show any real emotions. Even fewer show any real remorse. A handful become suicidal. A very few even attempt suicide.

This guy’s advice to me when talking to inmates facing lengthy sentences was pretty spot on; “Don’t talk too much, just listen. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t ask, ‘is there anything I can do for you?’”

In the real world, only 1% of the population meets criteria to qualify as true psychopaths, but in jails and prisons, that number jumps to 15%. I’ve talked to multiple killers before, some who have killed on accident, who killed on purpose, who killed out of anger, who killed out of greed, who killed out of jealous, who killed out of impulse and some who killed for apparently no reason at all, but none were as electrifying or showed such lack of empathy as this guy.

Here was a guy who killed his friend’s girlfriend, then stayed friends with the guy only to kill him and his new girlfriend three years later. The lack of empathy, manipulation and callousness it took to look his friend in the face day in and day out, knowing that he was the one that killed his last girlfriend is frightening.

During the hour I spent talking with this guy today I learned more about dealing with psychopaths than I could have by reading a 300 page book or taking a 9 week college course . It’s terribly fascinating.