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Jail Suicides in the United States

L. Hayes. National Study of Jail Suicide: 20 Years Later. National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) (Mansfield, MA) National Institute of Corrections. Jails Division (Washington, DC), 2010.

By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD

 Rates of jail suicide have decreased dramatically across the United States—nearly threefold—in the pThis photograph features the silhouette of a sitting man whose right hand is holding his bowed head, in a gesture of despair.  ast 20 years. That encouraging fact, however, is tempered by other findings in a new national study on jail suicide by Lindsay M. Hayes. He found that suicide remains a leading cause of death in jails across the country and that suicide rates are roughly three times higher in jails than among the general population.

In September 2006, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA) to conduct a comprehensive study on the extent and distribution of inmate suicides in jails. The last such study and its follow-up1, a landmark in the field, were conducted 20 years ago. Based on data from 2005 and 2006, the new study found that there are 36 suicides per 100,000 inmates in detention facilities, and that more than 400 jail inmates take their lives each year.

Twenty Years of Challenge and Change

For the recent study, Hayes identified 696 jail suicides in 2005 and 2006. Of these, 612 deaths occurred in detention facilities and 84 in holding facilities. Demographic data were subsequently analyzed on 464 of these suicides. In some cases, Hayes’ findings were consistent with those from two decades ago. For example, white males still made up the highest percentage of suicide victims. Almost all victims—roughly 93 percent of them—used hanging as their method of suicide. Both the old and new studies found that certain events are also associated with a higher risk of inmate suicide: about one-third occur between 2 to 14 days following arrest and about one-fifth around the time of a telephone call or visit. The majority occur within a couple of days of a scheduled court attendance.

Hayes also found substantial changes had occurred since the initial study. One involves the demographic characteristics of suicide victims: More than 40 percent of those who committed suicide were held on “personal and/or violent” charges, up from 10 percent 20 years before. Also, roughly 20 percent of suicide victims were intoxicated when they killed themselves, down from 60 percent two decades earlier.

There were substantial changes in the characteristics of suicides as well. For example, less than a quarter of the suicides occurred within the first 24 hours of confinement, down from 51 percent in the earlier study. The new study also found that 27 percent of the suicides occurred between 2 and 14 days of confinement, and 20 percent between 1 and 4 months—a shift from 20 years before, when the majority of suicides occurred within the first 24 hours of incarceration. Less than 40 percent of inmates who committed suicide were housed in isolation, down from 66 percent 20 years ago. The new report also notes a shift in the time of day that suicides peaked: About one-third of all suicides occurred between 3:01 P.M. and 9 P.M. in the latest study, whereas the past study indicated that a similar percentage of suicides occurred between midnight and 6 A.M. The current study also analyzed the characteristics of the jail facilities that sustained these suicides. (See box.)

National standards for correctional facilities focus on screening and assessment of suicide risk at intake, staff training on suicide prevention, and facility practices that reduce suicide risk. Because inmates can be at risk at any point during confinement, Hayes says that correctional facilities must develop a continuum of comprehensive suicide-prevention services aimed at the collaborative identification, continued assessment, and safe management of inmates at risk for self-harm. Although simple tools such as closed-circuit television monitors, safety garments, and removal of bedding and other materials that can be used in a suicide attempt are part of jail suicide prevention, Hayes asserts that they are not a substitute for the appropriate staff training, intervention, and supervision.  


1 NCIA’s And Darkness Closes In . . . A National Study of Jail Suicides (Hayes, 1983) and National Study of Jail Suicides: Seven Years Later (Hayes, 1989), which replicated the earlier national survey.

For more information, contact Mr. Lindsay M. Hayes at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives

To see the study report, go here.


Posted Mon, Jul 16 2012 1:23 PM by Tracey Vessels


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