Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In the aftermath of the suicide of Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped and raped three women in Cleveland, Ohio, many were conflicted on how to feel. Did he just save taxpayers a bunch of money? Or was it less about money and more about the fact that he escaped his actual sentence? Others, including the BBC, saw an opportunity for a different conversation: what does it take to suicide-proof a prison cell so this doesn’t happen again?
It’s essential to note at the outset that the question is inherently flawed. There is no such thing as a “suicide-proof” room. An inmate with enough determination, ingenuity, and time can overcome the most unyielding of obstacles, whether the goal is death or some other prohibited activity.
“The term we like to use is ‘suicide resistant’ not ‘suicide-proof’,” inmate suicide prevention expert Lindsay M. Hayes told the BBC. “This means that you do your due diligence trying to ensure as much as you can the physical safety of a cell by trying to outwit the inmate and looking at all the potential accouterments and possessions they have or don’t have and trying to make it as safe as possible.”
According to the World Health Organization, hanging is the most common form of inmate suicide, a fact that guides most prisoner suicide prevention policies. Rooms should contain no protrusions to which a noose can be tied. That includes doorknobs, clothing hangers, and light fixtures. Items that can be used as nooses or ligatures should also be removed from cells. A seemingly harmless laundry bag cord can become fatal in the hands of someone intent on suicide.
“Given the fact that the risk of self-harm utilizing a laundry bag string outweighs its usefulness for holding dirty clothes off the floor, laundry bag strings should be removed from the cell,” says Hayes on the inmate suicide prevention checklist he prepared for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.
Those suggestions seem fairly expected. But what is also interesting are more subtle touches that Hayes lays out. Housing placement should be based on increasing interaction with staff, "not on decisions that heighten depersonalizing aspects of confinement". All cells should have a view of the outside world to connect inmates to the larger world. “The ability to identify time of day via sunlight helps re-establish perception and natural thinking while minimizing disorientation,” says Hayes’ checklist.
So while it should be obvious, preventing inmate suicide is not just about confiscating the materials necessary to successfully kill oneself, but also about ensuring the general mental stability of those under correctional facility care. Sunlight makes humans feel human, something that can be elusive in the confines of a prison cell.