How does a suicide watch work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 28 2005 6:00 PM

What Happens on Suicide Watch?

How to keep people from killing themselves.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here.

A California death-row inmate died in his cell on Tuesday, three days after prison officials placed him on suicide watch. The former sausage-factory owner—he's known as the "Sausage King"—was awaiting punishment for the murder of three meat inspectors in 2000. What happens when an inmate is put on suicide watch?

He's put in an observation room and kept away from dangerous objects. Suicide watch is mostly designed to prevent hanging, which is far and away the most common suicide method in prisons and hospitals. An observation room might have little more than a mattress on the floor. Any stray bits of fabric could be used as a noose: Some states make sure the inmate sleeps with an extra-thick blanket that can't be tied or torn into strips. In extreme cases, a prisoner may be undressed and given a paper gown.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

Even if a suicidal prisoner does manage to tie something around his neck, he won't be able to hang himself unless he has somewhere to tie the other end. Rooms are designed without any protrusions from the ceiling, walls, or furniture. Window cages, sprinkler heads, and bunk handles all pose problems. Even bars set low to the ground could be dangerous—an inmate might get on his knees and strangle himself by thrusting his weight forward all at once.

Many suicide-watch rooms have 24-hour video surveillance, but prison staff must also perform routine, in-person checks. Depending on the level of risk—as determined by prison psychiatrists—nurses or corrections officers might drop by once per half-hour or 15 minutes on average. (Staffers mix up the schedule so the prisoner doesn't know when they're coming.) At each visit, the prison employee should verify that the inmate is alive and breathing and then mark their observations on a timesheet. Some institutions—including the Federal Bureau of Prisons—have made fellow inmates responsible for these checks. One recent study found that "inmate observers" were more effective than authority figures at calming down a prisoner on suicide watch. (Using inmate observers also saves the prison a lot of money.)

Intermittent checks may not give staffers enough time to stop a suicide attempt, since it takes only four or five minutes to hang yourself. In some states, inmates deemed to be at "acute risk" are given continuous supervision—someone is watching them every minute of every day. This designation is typically reserved for those who seem both inclined to commit suicide and temporarily unable to control their actions. In a hospital setting, the most extreme situations may call for a "sitter" who will remain within arm's reach of the patient for the duration of the watch.

If the suicide-watch system fails, a prison may be liable for civil damages. The institution must have a reasonable method for assessing risk and preventing self-injury. For example, relevant members of the prison staff should have sufficient training to deal with a suicide attempt. They should also make a concerted effort to keep dangerous objects out of the hands of the inmates.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Lanny Berman of the American Association of Suicidology.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?