Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Slate

September 5, 2013

Crime blog: Why is it so easy for prisoners to commit suicide?

NEW YORK — Ariel Castro apparently hanged himself in his prison cell Tuesday night, one month into the life-plus-1,000-years sentence he received for kidnapping three Cleveland women and holding them captive for a decade. Though Castro was in protective custody, which meant that somebody checked on him every 30 minutes, he was still able to commit suicide without anybody noticing. In a post for Slate, Josh Voorhees noted that "the most obvious question now facing prison officials is how the 53-year-old managed to hang himself while in protective custody." It might be an obvious question, but it's not an unfamiliar one. Prisoners commit suicide all the time - and corrections officials are hard-pressed to stop it.

In a recent report on mortality rates behind bars, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that suicide was by far the largest single cause of death in local jails from 2000 to 2011. (The suicide stats were much lower for state prisons during that same timespan, but, even so, a state prison inmate was about three times more likely to die from suicide than from homicide.) Most of these suicides were hangings. But unlike a gallows, which will snap your neck and kill you quickly, prison hangings are often drawn-out affairs in which the inmate maintains contact with the ground and slowly asphyxiates to death. Theoretically, many of these suicides could have been prevented if corrections officials would have noticed them in time. But America's jails and prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, and consequently there is much that goes unnoticed.

While a suicide watch will reduce the risk that a given inmate will kill himself, it can't eliminate that risk entirely. As Daniel Engber wrote for Slate in 2005, in many states, a suicide watch basically means that corrections officials put the prisoner in an observation room and visit him at random intervals to make sure he is still alive. The prisoner is often watched by closed-circuit camera, too, but cameras sometimes have blind spots, and the footage is not always monitored closely. In acute cases, suicide watches can involve 24-hour in-person surveillance, but that's too expensive to maintain indefinitely.

Could better technology help jails and prisons prevent more inmate suicides? In a recent report sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, researchers from GE described a prototype Doppler radar-based alert system that could help "indicate a suicide attempt in-progress by observing and interpreting motion related to heartbeat, breathing, and limb movement." The system would be installed in jail cells, and when it detected physiological responses to asphyxiation - "spontaneous gasping, struggling associated with the mental anguish of oxygen starvation (dyspnea), and sudden changes to or absence of heartbeat and breath" - it would alert corrections personnel, who would then come and revive the inmate.

I don't know whether this Doppler system is truly effective, although GE's initial tests seem promising. But I do think these sorts of technological solutions are worth exploring in greater depth, because people who want to stop suicide behind bars need all the help they can get.

               

      

 

1
Text Only
Slate
  • baby-generic.jpg For millennials, out-of-wedlock childbirth is the norm

    This month brings us yet another reminder that, for young Americans, having children outside of marriage is very much "the new normal," as The New York Times once put it.

    June 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • May 2014 was the hottest may in recorded history

    According to new data released this week, May 2014 is officially the warmest May in recorded history.
    Both NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency have tentatively ranked May at the top of historical measurements, though NASA's numbers are preliminary because crucial information is still missing from China.

    June 20, 2014

  • GM recalls soar past 20 million. Why don't consumers care?

    In case you thought there couldn't possibly be another General Motors recall so soon, you're just not thinking big enough. This week, GM said it was recalling 3.36 million more cars. The cause: an ignition switch defect that could result in keys carrying extra weight (read: a keychain) to slip out of position and shut the vehicle off abruptly during "some jarring event."

    June 18, 2014

  • No one is against devoted dads

    Father's Day is Sunday, which means that it's time for pundits and politicians to scold the American public - with special ire reserved for black members of the American public - for our supposed indifference to the wonder and awe of fatherhood.

    June 12, 2014

  • 74129880-graduates.jpg The fate of the overeducated and underemployed

    According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, about 44 percent of young bachelor's degree holders lucky enough to be working are employed in positions that technically don't require their degree. While that number isn't far off from the historical norm — 22-year-olds have always needed a little time to find their professional footing — the fraction stuck scraping bottom in truly low-paying jobs has grown quite a bit since the recession.

    June 4, 2014 1 Photo

  • Skype's real-time language translator

    This week at Re/Code's Code Conference, Microsoft announced a real-time, multilingual translation beta called Skype Translate. The service can mediate between two video chatterers who speak different languages by providing text and audio translation after each person finishes speaking. Currently the service works for English and German, but Microsoft says it will support other languages soon. The beta will be released later this year.

    May 29, 2014

  • New Orleans does away with traditional public schools

    The second-graders paraded to the Dumpster in the rear parking lot, where they chucked boxes of old work sheets, notebooks and other detritus into the trash, emptying their school for good.

    May 29, 2014

  • Amazon sells steroids and stimulants banned in sports

    I have by no means executed a comprehensive search of wares sold by Amazon directly or through its third-party sellers, but I found other prescription drugs for sale without a prescription, including the antibiotic norfloxacin and the muscle relaxant methocarbamol. Both compounds, like clindamycin, warrant careful oversight to avoid complications or endangering public health, such as by breeding antibiotic resistance.

    May 29, 2014

  • 2010-Winter-Olympic-Games-001.jpg Nobody wants to host the Winter Olympics

    If we end up watching slopestyle from the Central Asia steppes in 2022, it will likely be because it's becoming clear that nobody in Europe wants to host these Olympics anymore. Publics may finally be getting wise to the fact that the long-term economic benefits of hosting mega-events like the Olympics or the World Cup are usually negligible at best.

    May 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • Woman sues a New York Hospital for forcing a C-section. Can doctors do that?

    Though Dray's doctor claims he did not force her to have a C-section, her hospital record included a note signed by the hospital's director of maternal and fetal medicine that said, "I have decided to override her refusal to have a C-section."

    May 21, 2014