The United States is plagued by a countless number of social dilemmas. Although not in constant public scrutiny, suicide is a serious problem which has seemed to have lost importance. When suicide is coupled with arrest and incarceration it becomes an increasingly complex situation. In fact, research indicates that the jail suicide rate ranges from 2.5 to 13 times greater than the rate of the general population (Winkler 1992). Motivation, prediction, and prevention of suicidal behavior are grossly unclear, which only adds to the already existing complexity. Many factors involved with arrest and incarceration only serve as a catalyst of suicidal tendencies. Suicide is the primary cause of death in this country's jails. In 1986 there were 401 successful [jail] suicides (Winkler 19992).
There are many general assumptions made in regard to suicide. Most believe suicide to be caused by mental illness such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Another belief is that the emotional escalation leading to action takes place over a long period of time. Such is not the case in jail suicides. Much of the research shows that "of all [jail] suicides occur within the first twenty four hours of incarceration, and an overwhelming number of these take place in the first three hours of isolation which is referred to as the "crisis period" (Hess 1987). The crisis period is reflective of arrest and incarceration as producing extreme confusion, fear, and anxiety. The crisis period is also the result of isolation. Isolation causes an individual to lose all social support systems. Placing an individual in isolation may be a form of protection, but this gives the individual an opportunity to concentrate on feelings of hopelessness (Winkler 1992). Hopelessness can be defined as the presence of despair and negative feelings about the future (Shneidman 1987).Isolation can also produce a severe threat to those inmates who have difficulty with coping abilities as this only encourages future deterioration. Undoubtedly, isolation is often necessary to contain a person, or to prevent injury to the individual and, or other inmates. Individuals who are experiencing obvious mental stress should certainly not be held in isolation for obvious reasons. According to Hess (1983),many facilities have regulations which state,"The action taken must be responsible under the circumstances and represent a good- faith judgment that the action was the least restrictive alternative available." Regulations such as this not only serve as a guideline for officers, but as a preventive measure against legal action as a result of isolation. Aside from these emotional factors of the physical environment which are impetus of suicidal attempts. Isolation cells more often than not tend to have poor lighting, ventilation, and the surroundings are extremely noisy (Winkler 1992). The are minor modifications which can be made to reduce risk. These include removal of bars, sinks, or any other object which may facilitate a suicide attempt (Kunzman 1992).
There are certain characteristics of the "act" of jail suicide. The major characteristic which seems to be consistent in almost all cases is that the method used is hanging. In fact, according to Hess(1983), 96% of the [jail] suicides are successfully completed in this fashion and the instruments most often used are clothing, bedding, shoelaces, or belts. This trend is attributed to the fact that other avenues for suicide are not available. In cases which officers are aware of the person's fragile mental state, attempts are made to extinguish the availability of instruments. This is done by stripping the inmate of clothing, and, or accessories. All too often the objects and particularly the mental states are overlooked. Since this does occur, officers now carry the Stephans 9-11 knife which can effectively cut through sheets, bedding, belts, and other material (Winkler 1992).