By Tate McCotter, NIJO Executive Director
I don’t know of any jail administrator making a promise to their sheriff saying “We are going to eliminate suicides from happening at this jail.” Why not? While that is the best intention of every jail administrator and officer, the truth is that it is impossible to eliminate suicide. It doesn’t happen in the free world, and even the best run agencies may have a successful suicide during their watch. Certainly proactive steps should and can be taken by administrators to reduce the risk of a successful suicide, but a vow to eliminate them is a check that can’t be cashed.
Suicide screening is a proactive means for administrations to try and prevent inmate suicides by identifying risk factors which may indicate suicide ideation. Suicidal characteristics, which are found in virtually every inmate being booked into the jail (sadness, loss of self-esteem, withdrawal, anger, hopelessness, difficulty relating to others, etc.) may change within minutes of the suicide evaluation. False-negatives and false-positives should be expected, especially dealing with a population that may be manipulative and fake symptoms to further a personal agenda.
Suicide screening is a proactive tool to assist in determining risk. In a the 2015 Supreme Court decision, Taylor v. Barkes, the Court found that there is no constitutional requirement to conduct suicide screening. In their ruling they reiterated:
“No decision of this Court establishes a right to the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols.”
Furthermore, the Court also reversed the 3rd Circuit Court decision which found the jail’s suicide screening inadequate because they did not comply with the NCCHC’s latest standards as required by contract.
- While not constitutionally required, the legal-based guidelines strongly recommend officials utilize intake screening process to assist in discovering suicide ideation.
- The suicide screening process should be identified in policy and procedures as a proactive administrative tool to assist in discovering suicide ideation and thus preventing potential suicide attempts.
- Recognize in policies and procedures correctional staff are not qualified, trained mental health experts in suicide. Whenever possible, the responsibility to assess suicide risk should be given to qualified medical or mental health experts. This shifts the liability away from correctional staff as well as provides a more complete assessment.
- Information gathered by the arresting officer may be critical to assist jail staff in identifying potential suicide risk. There have been many cases where vital information was not passed on to the jail staff at the time of booking by the arresting officer that resulted in deliberate indifference lawsuits. For example, a mother may inform the arresting officer of her daughter being arrested who tried to cut her wrists two days ago. Obtaining this information from the arresting officer can greatly assist the jail and should be included and passed on to jail staff to assist with the screening process. Many agencies have an area on the forms used by the arresting officer that specifically ask about suicide.
- The risk assessment form or other instrument used to screen incoming inmates should include, but not limited to, questions and observations concerning:
- Previous suicide attempts;
- Current state of mind and suicide ideation;
- A family history of suicide or suicide attempts;
- Scars or other physical manifestations of previous suicide attempts; and
- Suicide threats or remarks.
- The risk assessment form should be reevaluated to determine the effectiveness of the questions
- Those individuals who are conducting the screenings should be trained by qualified persons to perform duties and understand the purpose of the screening.
- Taylor v. Barkes , 575 U.S. ___ (2015)
- “What Sheriffs Need to Know to Protect Against Inadequate Training Litigation” – by Gary DeLand
- “[I]f the label of suicide risk was applied to every inmate in the special subgroup, it would be wrong 99.3 percent of the time.” Dr. William E. Stone, “Jail Suicide,” Corrections Today