Developing a Written Program for Jail Suicide Prevention

By Hayes, Lindsay M. | Corrections Today, April 1994 | Go to article overview
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Developing a Written Program for Jail Suicide Prevention

Hayes, Lindsay M., Corrections Today

Jail suicides and the resulting liability can be dramatically reduced when officials put together a written suicide prevention program. The program need not be elaborate, but it must be comprehensive. Among the essential components of such a program are:

* staff training;

* intake screening;

* communication;

* housing;

* supervision;

* intervention;

* reporting; and

* follow-up/review.

Staff Training

The key to any prevention program is properly trained correctional staff, who are the backbone of any jail facility.

Very few suicides are actually prevented by mental health, medical or other professional staff. Because suicides usually are attempted in inmate housing units--often during late evening hours and on weekends--they are generally outside the purview of program staff and must be thwarted by jail officers who have been trained in suicide prevention and are able to demonstrate an intuitive sense regarding the inmates under their care. Simply stated, correctional officers are the only staff available in the jail 24 hours a day; thus, they form the front line of defense in suicide prevention.

Suicide prevention training should be given to all staff who come into contact with inmates and should be approximately eight hours in length. Emphasis should be placed on explaining why jail environments are conducive to suicidal behavior, potential pre-disposing factors to suicide, high-risk suicide periods and warning signs and symptoms.

Officers also should receive self-awareness training regarding their own attitudes and biases toward suicidal inmates and should be instructed on the importance of overcoming personal difficulties in working with high-risk individuals. Finally, the training should include a comprehensive review of the facility's overall prevention program.

Intake Screening

Intake screening is crucial to any jail's suicide prevention efforts. It is imperative that every jail, regardless of size, screen each arrestee for potentially suicidal behavior upon entry into the facility. Though an inmate can commit suicide at any time during incarceration, research shows that more than 50 percent of all suicides take place within the first 24 hours of incarceration, with almost a third occurring within the first three hours. Thus, suicide prevention efforts, particularly intake screening, must be initiated during the early stages of incarceration.

Though there is disagreement within the medical and psychiatric communities as to which factors are most predictive of suicide in general, research in the area of jail suicides has identified a number of characteristics that are strongly related to suicide, including intoxication, emotional state, family history of suicide, recent significant loss, no prior incarceration, lack of a social support system and previous history of suicidal behavior. Most jail suicides--80 percent--are committed by individuals who have made at least one prior attempt during their lifetime.

The most recent research available, based on a review of more than 400 jail suicides that occurred during a one-year period, found that more than 89 percent of all county jail victims had not been screened for potentially suicidal behavior prior to their death, while 97 percent of victims in police department lockups had not been screened.

In addition to alerting staff to specific suicide risks, intake screening also serves to regularly sensitize jail staff and increase general awareness to the potential of suicide within a facility, particularly in those jails lacking a mental health presence.


Certain signs exhibited by the inmate can indicate a possible suicide and, if detected and communicated to others, can be helpful in preventing such an incident. There are essentially three levels of communication in preventing jail suicides:

* between the arresting/transporting

officer and jail staff;

* between and among jail staff

(including mental health and

medical personnel); and

* between jail staff and the suicidal


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