Suicide in Local Jails – Minimal Policies and Procedures for Protection of Inmates

Suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails.  There is really no excuse for this.  The risk factors, warning signs and preventive measures are well known.

Despite the fact that risk factors, warning signs and preventive measures are all very clearly established, many jails have no written policies or worse yet, no policies at all on suicide prevention.

Minimal Suicide Prevention Policies and Strategies

Jail suicide risks, warning signs and preventive measures are all well established. Many of these are fairly basic and represent a the minimum threshold for protection of inmates.

As noted in our previous post on jail suicide, jails by their nature house a population highly vulnerable to suicide.  They hold high-risk groups including: young male inmates, the mentally ill, drug and alcohol abusers/addicted, and those who have attempted suicide in the past.

In particular, those inmates that have drug and alcohol abuse and addiction issues may be detoxing during the early days of their incarceration.  This intensifies the vulnerability to suicide and in fact, the suicide risk is much higher during the first week of incarceration.

This means that local jails should be aware of the risk factors and the warning signs for possible suicide.  Of course, this presumes that the local jail staff is even looking or otherwise paying attention.  This may in fact be an erroneous assumption.

Policies and Training are Essential

Many local jails lack written policies. Others lack any policies and procedures at all. This is inexcusable and a callous disregard for the rights and lives of inmates.

As pointed out, many local jails have no written policies or no policies at all regarding suicide prevention.  Many provide little or no training.  Many more provide only superficial training with no real substance.  The outcomes speak for themselves with suicide leading the way in cause of death in local jails.

The U.S. Marshalls Service report “Basics and Beyond:  Suicide Prevention in Jails” has set forth some basic requirements for suicide prevention.  A review of the list seems to suggest that these are bare minimum standards rather than a set of best practices.

The U.S. Marshalls Service has set forth a number of basic requirements of prevention of jail suicide.

Here are a few of the basic suggestions from the U.S. Marshalls Service:

  • Written policies,
  • Training of staff on suicide prevention at agency orientation training,
  • A minimum of annual refresher suicide prevention training,

The report goes on to set the essential elements of training which include:

  • Creating effective attitudes towards suicide prevention,
  • Training in the identification of risk factors and warning signs,
  • Training on the appropriate response to risks and warning signs when identified, and
  • Emergency response training in case of suicide attempts.

Preventive Measures

In addition to the general training, there are many basic preventive measures that should be implemented more globally for at-risk inmates, particularly in the early days of their incarceration.

Suffice it to say that effective suicide prevention policies, strategies and techniques are no secret.  They are well established and as one can see by a review of the basic requirements for inmate safety, relatively easy to implement.

Inmate Rights and Remedies for Failure to Adopt Suicide Prevention Policies

There could be a multitude of parties and claims. It is important to identify them all.

The lack of policy reflects a lack of concern and seriousness about the issue for which jails could face significant liability for an inmate suicide death under the 8th and 14th Amendments,  §1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the New Mexico Tort Claims Act and common law.

The claims will depend upon the entities and parties sued.  The identification of parties and claims can be fairly complicated since there may be a multitude of governmental and private entities and parties sharing responsibility for the wrongful death of an inmate.

These complications arise from the fact that many local jails have, to one degree or another, privatized operations.  For instance, many jails are entirely managed and run by private corporations.  Others may have private contracts with medical and mental health providers.

Suffice it to say that each of these entities, whether governmental or private, will have responsibility and potential liability for the suicide death of an inmate in its care.

Money Talks and It is the Only Language Many Jails Speak

Unfortunately, many local jails have not and will not change until the financial consequences for their neglect force them to adopt suicide prevention policies and procedures.

In short, there is no reason why suicide should lead the way in inmate deaths in local jails.  The only explanation is a callous and wanton disregard of the rights and welfare of the inmates.

And like most such issues, the only way to effect change is through legal action by way of civil rights lawsuits that makes neglect significantly more expensive than simple compliance with basic inmate safety measures.  In a word, money talks where pleas to basic morality fall short.

Unfortunately, this comes too late for the inmate and the families left to pick up the pieces.  On the other hand, these lawsuits may help to avoid the next tragic and unnecessary loss of life while in the care of a local jail.

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