Suicide Methods in Prison
From strangulation to head-bashing, suicides can be harrowing, if not sometimes creative.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in American jails (Hayes and Rowen, 1988) and the third leading cause of death in American prisons (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998). Prisoners are at a much higher risk of suicides than the general public, and especially those who have been recently sentenced. See this Suicide Risk Scale used by some correctional agencies to assess suicide concerns among offenders, or this Suicide Fact Sheet for Corrections Officers.
While suicide is more difficult to accomplish in prison, prisoners often employ a number of different and creative methods when attempting suicide. Without easy or
legal access to drugs, weapons, or willing assistants, inmates often
use painful, even tortuous, methods of ending their lives. Correctional agencies, such as the Prison Service of England
and Wales, attempt to moderate inmate opportunity to commit suicide
by designing cells with high security window grills, immovable plate-
safe ventilators, rectangular, floor-mounted safe-skirting heater
pipes, and fixed resin-clad storage units (Burrows, Brock, Hulley
2003). At many prisons suicide assessments are conducted at intake,
and if suicidal tendencies are discovered, the inmate is placed
in a specially-supervised ward that is periodically checked by staff
no fewer than every 15 minutes. Inmates at these wards are usually
only allowed hospital-like garments and a single blanket, and are sometimes
placed in restraint chairs, if symptoms are severe.
It is unclear whether many of these developments work or not. Many
of the risk-factors for suicidal behaviour in prisoners resemble
those for non-prisoners, such as substance-abuse, mental health
facility-admittance, acute psychoses, and psychiatric morbidity
(Shaw, Appleby, Baker 2003); it may be more efficient and cost-effective
to assess and monitor these indications on a regular basis than
attempt to redesign the living environments of potentially millions
of inmates. In addition, many methods of suicide are varied and
sometimes ingenious, to the point where many superintendents or
wardens have publicly acknowledged that institutions, regardless
of how much protection they afford the prisoner, will seldom be
"suicide-proof." A spate of these different methods is
The most common methods of suicide, for a number of reasons, are
hanging and strangulation, and the most common ligature points for
strangulation are window bars, followed by bed fittings. Inmates
spend most of their time alone in their cell, where they have access
to bedsheets, time, and privacy. Inmates also use wires, ropes (usually
taken from a workplace), shoelaces, socks, or belts. The most typical
regiment for strangulation involves propping oneself up on a stool
or chair, tying a makeshift rope around an overhead pipe, fixing
a firm knot around the neck, and kicking away the chair underfoot.
This method usually takes about 5 minutes. Some have used pencils,
as short as a few inches, to simulate a tourniquet with shoelaces.
Some have tied their necks and a radiator pipe and simply continuously
twisted their bodies to eventually cut off the circulation. Some
inmates have successfully hanged themselves from no more than 6
inches off the floor, and from vertical pipes on the walls as opposed
to horizontal pipes on the ceiling.
Inmate mental health testing is essential to reduce suicide risk in prison. Photo credit: Bureau of Prisons
Asphyxiation has also been achieved by using a plastic bag to cut
off air circulation. In July 2002, Australian inmate Bradley William
Rapley affixed a plastic "property bag," used for holding
cigarettes, around his neck with blankets and towel fragments. Others,
such as a suicide in Colonie, NY, used their prison socks to tighten
the same sort of bag. A Belfast prisoner in September of 2005 confounded experts
by employing a "bizarre" series of knots to secure a plastic
bag around his head and successfully commit suicide. John McGrath
made 6 knots from laces, shirts, and towels, covered his mouth with
a plastic bag, and stuffed bits and pieces of the bag up his nose.
Knot expert Michael Lucas said that McGrath had likely prepared
the knots in advance, using "granny knots with a left twist,"
and doing them in proper sequence (1 September 2005 Belfast News
Drugs are the next most common method of killing oneself. An inmate
at Kingston Penitentiary once collected individual doses of carbon
tetrachloride (cleaning fluid) on a regular basis from offices
for two years as a prison office cleaner, so that he would finally
have enough to damage his kidneys beyond repair and kill himself.
Rubbing alcohol (methylated alcohol) has also been used
in the past, bought from messengers and other inmate cleaners. A
fatal methyl alcohol overdose is usually preceded by intense periods
of vomiting, blurred vision, muscle spasms, and acute pain. Permanent
blindness, often after a period of a week or two, results. Rubbing
alcohol appears to be unrestricted by national boundaries. Five
inmates in Manila in 1996 were celebrating the election of a gang
leader, Napoleon Montealegre, when all fell ill and one later died
in hospital after drinking a cocktail made up of 1.5 liters of rubbing
alcohol (Reuters, 16 February 1996). A year later in Bucharest,
16 inmates were hospitalized and two later died from an overdose
of a methylated cocktail they had made from supplies in the furniture
Ethyl Glycol, or antifreeze, is sometimes acquired from
radiators or air compressors. Fatal overdoses are preceded by abdominal
cramps, weakness, vomiting, quickened heart rate and respiration,
headache, coma, and blurred vision. Death results from kidney destruction,
brought on by a particular acidic byproduct of antifreeze, oxalic
acid, which destroys the tubules of the kidney and results in uremia,
hepatomegaly, liver necrosis, and toxic degeneration of our brain's
basal ganglia (which controls our sympathetic, physiological regulatory
functions such as respiration and heart rate). In 2001 an inmate
thrown in the drunk tank of an Anapolis jail later died from antifreeze
poisoning, which investigators believed he had drunk from mixing
orange juice and vodka in a container he had found in his vehicle
(Associated Press, 8 February 2001). In Pensacola in February
of 2005, an Escambia County commissioner facing a prison term for
bribery, extortion, and grand theft, committed suicide by ingesting
an undiscolsed amount of antifreeze and other toxic agents. His
badly decomposed body was found a month after his death (The
Tallahassee Democrat, 18 February 2005).
Prison Suicide News
Washington Prisons Will No Longer Punish Inmates For 'Self-Harm'Thursday, July 03, 2014
Washington’s prison system has announced a major policy change when it comes to inmates who harm the
Federal lawsuit over inmate’s suicide in 2008 at Portland jail to go forwardSunday, June 15, 2014
PORTLAND, Maine — A portion of a wrongful death lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the mother o
Leslie Schuler, Worcester man who killed son, kills self in prisonSaturday, May 24, 2014
WORCESTER — Leslie G. Schuler, the Worcester man convicted of beating his 7-year-old son to death on
British former public school boy serving life for beheading U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl attempts to commit suicide in Pakistani prisonMonday, February 17, 2014
A British man serving life imprisonment in Pakistan for the killing of American reporter Daniel Pear
State to pay cost of Cleveland kidnapper autopsyThursday, February 06, 2014
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The state prisons agency has agreed to reimburse county taxpayers for the auto
see all prison suicide news
Mice pellets, possessing strychnine, have been shown to
cause death, but are undesirably accompanied by severe convulsions.
Mace, containing myristin, is also fatal in high enough
doses, producing hepatic necrosis. Both mace and nutmeg, similar
to many methylated amphetamines and catecholamines, both produce
distinctive hallucinogenic properties, albeit accompanied by severe
nausea, dysphoria, and general feelings of illness. Turpentine and
other similar cleaning poisons are common items in a prison environment,
and can have fatal, if not chronically-painful, effects.
Falls have proven to be effective for those prisoners who
have access to under-supervised heights. In 2005, Greg Cornell jumped
from the second-storey tier inside the St. Joseph County Jail in
South Bend and died later at a local hospital.
Typewriter cleaning fluid has been used in the past, and
is particularly fatal by its liver-poisoning qualities.
Of course, most any psychoactive drug that can produce toxicity
can be fatal in high enough doses. However, high doses may be particularly
difficult to obtain in prison. As a possible solution, inmates may
administer heavily adulterated compounds, or combinations of drugs
that have a synergistic effect, such as taking benzodiazepines (Diazepam)
with hypnotics or sedatives (alcohol, barbiturates), depressing
respiration and causing death. Cyanide has also been smuggled in
to prison on occasion, providing a particularly quick and lethal
method of self-execution.
Self-inflicted wounds represent the third most common method of suicide. These most often include
slashings, involving forks, bolts, knives, needles, razors, and
bits of wire. Some swallow foreign objects. For example, one woman
in Kingston Penitentiary broke a water glass against her cell wall,
wrapped the broken pieces in damp toilet paper-ball, then swallowed
it, resulting in fatal bowel perforations that would take 6 days
to kill her. Inmates have also used paper clips to slash their wrists,
but razor blades, which are preferred, are often accessible enough.
Others have cut their throats, necks, and stomachs, but a few have also slashed
their thighs. Sometimes, victims slash combinations of these body sites
simultaneously, or combine slashings will drug overdoses, ensuring
a death if one or the other methods fails. Slashings are not unheard of
in condemned convicts just before their execution date. A more chilling
case of suicide was that of Thai baby-slasher Sawai Palaphol, who
repeatedly bashed his head into the prison wall until he collapsed,
dead. One pathologically suicidal woman in a Warm Springs mental
hospital tried to commit suicide by slashing her arms with a broken
light bulb, by swallowing seven AA batteries and two razor blades,
and by eating two-thirds of a tennis shoe, according to the Great
Most prison suicides remain private and acceptably ignored by fellow
inmates and correctional staff, unless the victim is high-profile,
or a so-called "bug." Media
reports are similarly disinterested, and usually report the suicide
in a pragmatic, non-analytical, presupposing fashion.
When discussing factors contributing to the desire to kill oneself
while incarcerated, the answer seems self-evident; social isolation,
harsh discipline, lack of privacy, constant threat of violence,
fear, guilt, hopelessness, and depression all take a heavy toll
on the human spirit. However, several common stressors typically
precede an inmate suicide: 50% of suicide victims in New York prisons
recently experienced inmate-inmate conflict, 42% experienced recent
disciplinary action, 40% were in a state of fear, another 42% were
physically ill, and an overwhelming 65% had either lost "good
time" privileges or had severed relationships with friends
or family. Many suicide victims saw a mental health service-provider
before their suicide, but the majority of suicide victims are not
mentally ill (Way, Miraglia, Sawyer 2005).
While increased security measures have likely reduced the number
of suicides (and likely increased the total budget of correctional
departments), the motivation to commit suicide must be equally considered
in prevention. This, however, represents a paradox, particularly
for lifers: how do we make an inmate want to live within a disciplinary
environment that makes the inmate want to die? The traditional methods
of preventing suicide used on the outside do not work on the inside,
nor are they acceptable among the many proponents of retributive-punishment.
Treatment programs remain a successful alternative, and fit well
into the existing prison structure, although there is a reluctance
to employ programming that does not target the needs that put the
offender in jail, in the first place. More research needs to be
done to conclusively establish the proper prevention of suicide
on 8/11/2013 6:34:00 PM
Profound statement...my question is, how do you help a inmate live in the very facility the makes him or her want to die?
on 8/25/2013 3:18:00 AM
If you are a inmate who is facing life imprisonment (pointless existence) or if they cant adjust to prison life, why stop them from ending their lives? They have a right to do so, long as they are not harming prison staff or other inmates in the process. The real reason why DOCs go to great lengths to stop prison suicide is that the act is viewed the same as trying to escape.
on 8/27/2013 2:55:00 PM
Endstatism I think the real reason they go through great lengths is to avoid litigation and bad publicity. I know people who have been on suicide watch at these places and they ask a gaurd why do they make the conditions for a suicidal inmate even more miserable then ever. The guards would say the whole point is to avoid lawsuits not help them feel better.
on 10/20/2013 9:02:00 PM
Endstatism, I don't think there is any sin that should leave a person deserving to kill themselves. Many inmates suffer from disorders that are not treated, causing suicidal tendencies. Just because these people have committed crimes doesn't mean they can not find purpose or meaning in their life inside prison. Anyone can turn their life around, change their thought process and go through remorse of what they have done. If you had a relative that got into the wrong crowd and committed a gang crime would you feel okay with them killing themselves over it? Or would you want your relative to find purpose in his life and enjoy the gift of life even if they are locked up. I rather give someone a chance to go through that process of changing themselves for the better whether it be through education achievement, finding religious purpose, or some time up self-fulfillment rather than just killing themselves because they have life in prison.
on 10/21/2013 10:49:00 AM
My daughter is facing the possibility of years in prison. She has told me that if there is a long prison term, she will end her life. Given that my daughter`s young age and small stature, she will most likely be targeted for sexual assault. Who wants to live in that? If she chooses that and the DOC tries to prevent her and throw her in a cell stripped naked, I will ask the ACLU to help out in a lawsuit if they are not too busy getting butt hurt over someone uttering the name of Jesus on public property.
"If there is any such thing as a fundamental human right, it should be the ability to kiss the world goodbye. The state should have no say so whatsoever in the decision." Jim Goad
on 11/21/2013 5:30:00 AM
Personally I can't for the life of me understand why they don't offer assisted suicide to prisoners? The tax money saved might be huge, it's humane and dignified. We have the right to imprison and take a life, but not the right to offer a compassionate and caring end? Our need to punish so strong we become worse monsters than the people held in the jail ? Can we really feel good about ourselves in this because it's a written rule? Wow , I don't, unfortunately I'm to smart to fool myself that easily. I know the difference between right and wrong, it's not precisely written anywhere, in any rule or law. We need to offer assisted suicide to inmates, it's the right thing to do.
on 11/22/2013 9:05:00 PM
I can't believe that people would advocate for someone to end their life!!! What kind of world do we live in?
on 11/26/2013 2:00:00 AM
try doing time bitch
on 12/6/2013 12:56:00 PM
People who are doing time are doing it because they chose to commit a crime. We should never offer assisted help with suicide to a prisoner who is being punished, They are being punished for a reason. Suicide is the easy way out. How about retribution and rehabilitation? Most prisoners aren't there for life and sometimes suicide is an impulsive reaction to a scary situation.
on 12/10/2013 12:12:00 PM
In a genuinely free society, you and your life should not be property of the state. In monarchies, fascism, communism, Nazism and other totalitarian states, their citizens are considered state property. Why should we be that way in a republic? I do not like the idea of assisted suicide because the government is involved. What I advocate for is if a prison inmate cannot adjust to life behind bars they should be able to end their life without interference from corrections officials
on 1/14/2014 9:37:00 PM
iM SURE IF A PRISON WAS RUN PROPERLY THERE WOULDN'T BE ANY RESAON TO SUICIDE
on 1/23/2014 9:32:00 PM
The prison system should just execute the prisoners
los angeles, calif
That want to die make it easier and cheaper for the tax
on 2/11/2014 2:28:00 PM
the FBI & local police have been abusing & violating me. no one believes me. I think they are trying to make me suicidal. They appear to have the most laughable accountability for their actions.
on 2/12/2014 10:59:00 PM
I have struggled with suicide, depression and low self esteem, for as long as I can remember. I had attempted suicide in the past and survived. I had had enough of the recent issues in my life (no job, no money, bills unpaid, creditors calling, no home, and my house being foreclosed. I just could not take it and just did not know how I was ever going to get out of this hole. I always felt I was never born to be happy and decided I was going to take my life. I had been to psychologists and counselors to no avail, no change. I cried constantly and one night I broke down and cried to God. "Do you hear me, do you see what I am going through, are you even listening?" . I left it at that and decided i would take my life after attending an appointment I had agreed to the following week. The day I went to the appointment I decided to spend time with my best friend for the last time (I never told him I was contemplating suicide). We chilled and he had to go to church so I decided to go with him so I could spend some more time with him. I expected nothing. As we were in church one lady walked up to me and started praying for me saying everything that I had been going through (things I never told anyone or even spoke) and this was my first time ever at this church. I was shocked. Later on in the services the pastor walked up to me and started speaking (God speaking through him). He said "I have heard you and seen your tears..., alot of people have disappointed you, there are some things that have been hunting you since childhood and God is going to take them away and some things you have been asking for will come soon) he answered all the questions I had been asking God. Again I was dumbfounded. The next thing I knew i was on the floor (this has never happened to me before. Months later, I find myself happy, I am not suicidal, I still have problems but that comes with life but with God on my side I am happy. I no longer have low self esteem and I feel like a new person. I never thought I could ever get over it. To be honest I never thought even God could heal me. It is GONE and I've never felt more alive and free. GLORY TO God who saves.
on 4/3/2014 3:22:00 PM
My son is doing time in a Federal Prison and I listen to him tell me of the living conditions that him and the other inmates have to live under and it breaks my heart as a mother as NO human being should have to live in a place where there is a smell of sewage and that the bathroom is disgusting and that one may have no hot water for hours or days. Yes my son made a wrong decision in his life but he is a human being and should not be treated like a animal, even animals in the zoo don't sleep where they go to the bathroom. It is a shame that at inmate would have to live under these conditions, where is our money going. We should be helping the inmates to improve their life by providing them counseling, medical care, education, etc so that once they come out into the real world they will be stronger and healthy young men and woman. What is wrong with this society we all make mistakes in our life so we should try to help inmates instead of looking at them as bad people who's life is over. Wonder why inmates feel that their life is over and they would rather just end it when they are sitting in a cell by themselves thinking of what they have done that got them there in the first place. I pray each and every night that my son will be strong to get through this time and I will be here for him through his time as I am a mother who cares about her child.
on 4/11/2014 2:56:00 AM
Suicides in jail are not always preventable I'm afraid. I agree to attempt to stop them to an extent, but there is no point having tonnes of expensive measures to stop them.
If someone is determined to do it, they genuinely will. At least if they do succeed they won't reoffend and it's cheaper for tax payers.
on 7/13/2014 7:50:00 PM
People forget in this country, unless you are sentenced to death, you do not deserve death. The fact that suicide is so frequent should be heard by ever American, these are people in need of help, not to be murdered... which is on ever single Americans head. We cast the dice on too many people and do not check back up on them afterwards, we and the government have led to the unfair destruction of lives of people who could be rehabilitated... I deeply hope things will change... don't get me started on those wrongly convicted...
on 7/16/2014 12:07:00 AM
new member, haven't read every post and hi all
ok first, Michelle@12/6/2013 12:56:00 PM and similar pro-state posts you are ignorant. not every prisoner is guilty. not every guilty prisoner is a violent offender. not every nonviolent offender deserves a life sentence. I would refer you to https://www.aclu.org/living-death-sentenced-die-behind-bars-what
this is a legitimate topic in post-constitutional America where your innocence does not protect your life or your liberty from being stolen by a massively corrupt corporate state. most people don't deserve a 50 year sentence of living death
to me there's no moral question for an innocent or oversentenced facing this situation. if moral questions mattered then the government wouldnt murder and incarcerate plenty of nondeserving Americans every year. the only question to me is biology, how to minimize the pain and maximize the odds of success. not something I (or anyone for that matter) should ever consider unless the prison-industrial complex has you in its vice
on 7/19/2014 7:58:00 PM
My daughter ended up in DOC and in the first two weeks she was beaten by prison guards, threatened by other inmates and ended up in suicide watch. Locked up in a cell naked. I dont blame anyone for cashing in their chips. Its like seeing the Gulag Archipelago in front of you.
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