Prison Suicide: Rates and Prevention Policies
Hayes, Lindsay M., Corrections Today
Historically, little is known about the issue of prison suicide, a research topic that has been characterized as a victim of relative neglect in criminology and corrections (Austin and Unkovic 1977). Recently, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) completed a monograph on prison suicide for the National Institute of Corrections. The 108-page monograph, Prison Suicide: An Overview and Guide to Prevention, presents a thorough discussion of the literature, a review of national and state standards for prison suicide prevention, national data on the incidence and rate of prison suicide, effective prison suicide prevention programs and a discussion of liability issues (Hayes 1995). Summarized below are key findings related to suicide rates and prevention policies.
Prison Suicide Rates:
A 10-year Review
Suicide ranks third behind natural causes and AIDS as the leading cause of death in Prisons within the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1993). To measure the severity of the problem, researchers invariably calculate the rate of suicide within prison systems. To date, however, few national studies of prison suicide rates have been conducted; therefore, our existing knowledge base is limited to research on individual state prison systems reporting widely disparate findings. For example, Anno (1985) determined that the suicide rate was 18.6 per 100,000 inmates in the Texas prison system; Salive et al (1989) calculated a suicide rate of 39.6 for male prison inmates in Maryland, and Batten (1992) found an average suicide rate of 53.7 in the Oregon prison system during the 25-year period of 1963 through 1987. In addition, rates of suicide within the same prison system can vary widely from year to year. For example, the California Department of Corrections (1994) determined that the rate of suicide in its prison facilities decreased from 17 per 100,000 inmates in 1990 to 14 per 100,000 in 1992, while dramatically and inexplicably rising to 25 per 100,000 inmates in 1993.
The limited research available on national prison suicide rates is both somewhat dated and plagued by inconsistent reporting problems. Lester (1982, 1987) cited previous calculations of national prison suicide rates for two periods: 1978 to 1979 and 1980 to 1983. The rate of suicide for male inmates was 24.6 and 24.3, respectively, for these two periods. Unfortunately, the above calculations were based on nationally reported Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data that were underreported. For example, the most recent data available on prison suicide from the BJS reported a total of 89 Prison suicides throughout the united States in 1991. This total, however, does not include data from six "nonreporting" jurisdictions, as well as an unknown number of possible suicides contained within inmate death data listed by BJS as "unspecified causes." Excluding nonreporting jurisdictions, the national prison suicide rate based on BJS data would be 13.9 suicides per 100,000 inmates. This rate is low, how ever, compared to other data. For example, analyzing annual national survey data from both the Criminal Justice Institute (1992) and Corrections Compendium (1992) as well as from telephone follow-up with several jurisdictions, NCIA was able to verify 127 prison suicides for all state and federal prison during 1991. Thus, a more accurate national prison suicide rate for 1991 would be 16.4 suicides per 100,000 inmates.
In an effort to collect the most recent national data on prison suicides, NCIA surveyed all 50 state departments of correction (DOC), plus the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and inquired as to the number of inmate suicides each prison system had during 1993. In addition, to review historical trends in the rate of prison suicide throughout the country, we gathered and analyzed data from the 1984 through 1992 annual surveys of both the criminal justice Institute and Corrections Compendium. …