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Suicide in the Prison System: A Preventable Tragedy

The recent suicide of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez is only one of an upward trend in suicides of people in custody. Hernandez, who has been serving a life sentence since 2015, was found hanging in his cell on the morning of April 20, 2017, despite being placed on suicide watch. Too often, suicide watch by itself is not the most effective method of suicide prevention. (“How prisons keep their suicidal inmates on watch,” CNN, April 20, 2017).

“Suicide watch has wound up being an incredibly bleak environment,” said Christine Tartaro, a professor of criminal justice at Stockton University and expert on suicide in correctional facilities. “There’s not going to be a thing in there to help you take your mind off of that. It doesn’t bode well for you being able to get better.”

In 2014, suicides accounted for 7 percent of deaths in state prisons. Additionally, while 93 percent of jails had a suicide watch protocol, less than 2 percent had the option for around-the-clock observation. Instead, most facilities checked on inmates every 15 minutes.

But some prisons and jails have begun ramping up their mental health programs by using Mental Health First Aid. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, for example, dedicated one year to training all 16,000 of its staff members.

To change the way we deal with individuals experiencing a mental health-related crisis, law enforcement and correctional personnel must have a seamless understanding of the signs and symptoms and how to accurately identify them. It is our hope that with more law enforcement and correctional officers trained in Mental Health First Aid, the recent trend of inmate suicides will decrease.