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Suicide Methods in Prison

From strangulation to head-bashing, suicides can be harrowing, if not sometimes creative.

 

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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 outlined below.

Strangulation

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 and suicide
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 Letter).

Drug overdoses

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 workshop.

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).

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

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 Falls Tribune.

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.

Warning Signs

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 in prison.


comments

Or...discuss anonymously

Southerngirl wrote
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?

endstatism wrote
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.

stuicide wrote
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.

wrote
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.

endstatism wrote
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

wrote
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.

Dianne l wrote
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?

wrote
on 11/26/2013 2:00:00 AM
try doing time bitch

Michelle wrote
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.

endstatism wrote
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

wrote
on 1/14/2014 9:37:00 PM
iM SURE IF A PRISON WAS RUN PROPERLY THERE WOULDN'T BE ANY RESAON TO SUICIDE

John wrote
on 1/23/2014 9:32:00 PM
The prison system should just execute the prisoners
That want to die make it easier and cheaper for the tax
Payer's .

los angeles, calif wrote
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.

jesushealsallpain wrote
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.

Sue wrote
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.

Anon wrote
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.

wrote
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...

ima bish wrote
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

endstatism wrote
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.

wrote
on 8/27/2014 3:34:00 AM
It has become all too easy to think of inmates as a waste of life and easily disposable. Many feel that they deserve what they get...but our justice system is deeply flawed..our prisons are mostly places where frustrated cop wanna-bes become guards and actually enjoy treating fellow human beings like animals...or even worse. I knew some of this, but was fully awakened to it when I found myself loving someone in prison. A man being punished is one thing, but to rob him of his dignity and self-respect is something else. I am joining the rising cry of those who want the world to know that someone who makes a mistake and does their time deserves to be given avenues that will take him or her back toward a life in which they can have fulfillment and pride. No one deserves less than that.


Chris wrote
on 11/8/2014 3:17:00 PM
It's sad to see so many people ignorant of how the law works. In many states, prison time is the answer to even the smallest of crimes. In the state of Missouri, for example, theft of something worth $5 is punishable by up to $1,000 fine AND up a year in prison. For $5. That's the same prison term for someone who commits arson. So, a man who burns down a $150,000 house is given the same sentence as a man who steals a $5 sandwich.

Yes, they both chose to commit a crime. Yes, there should be some sort of justice for the crime. But prison is often too harsh a sentence for minor crimes, and it is still technically an option. I'll admit, the majority of the people in prison are there for bigger crimes than stealing $5. I'm just saying, don't assume that everyone who is in prison got there by murdering a dozen people.

I don't agree to the idea of assisted suicide, either. That opens up too many avenues that allow the prison guards or doctors to outright murder a person and claim that the inmate wanted to die. The guards already have too much liberty to do what they want to the inmates; or to ignore them while they get beat up or raped. Giving them the authority to kill prisoners who aren't trying to escape or harm someone else is just stupid.

However, I believe that if a person who is not mentally ill and does not have clinical depression truly decides to end their own life, then no one else has the right to tell them otherwise. Or to prevent them from accomplishing their goal.

Personally, if I ever go to prison, suicide would be only logical response. And anyone who has the gall to say it's the "easy way out" has clearly never been at rock bottom before, and clearly has no sense of compassion for their fellow human.

If prisons were better regulated as to prevent inmates from suffering any kind of abuse - including sexual abuse - from other inmates, and from the guards, the suicide rate would not be so high. Most people in prison kill themselves not to escape prison, but to escape the people they're locked up with. When you're locked in a cage, you can't run away.


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