How an anti-suicide smock prevents prisoners from killing themselves.

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Dec. 5 2007 6:45 PM

What's an Anti-Suicide Smock?

It's noose-proof.

The three men charged with murdering Sean Taylor. Click image to expand.
The three suspects in the Sean Taylor slaying at Miami Dade County Jail

A Miami-Dade County grand jury has indicted four men on charges of first-degree murder in the slaying of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor. On Tuesday, the three adult suspects were denied bond and made to wear sleeveless gowns, which defense attorneys said were "suicide safety smocks." Can smocks really prevent inmates from committing suicide?

Well, they can make it damn difficult to hurt yourself. The large majority of prisoners who die by suicide use available bedding or clothing to hang themselves while housed alone in their cells. Anti-suicide smocks, however, are noose-proof. Made out of quilted nylon Cordura, an exceptionally tough material that's approximately 10 times stronger than Levi's jeans, the smocks are so resilient they can't be torn, and so thick they can't be folded or rolled into cords. Since the shoulder seams unfasten under pressure, the armholes can't be used as makeshift nooses, either.

Desperate inmates can get fairly creative: They may try to light their clothes on fire or use small metal fasteners to self-mutilate. But anti-suicide smocks are so bulky that flames burn out quickly, and the adjustable openings at the chest and shoulders are lined with Velcro rather than zippers or hard hooks and loops. If an inmate does manage to harm himself, it's easy for medical personnel to remove smocks since they're sleeveless and open down the front.

Sean Taylor's alleged killers were clothed in green smocks, and any Guantanamo detainee thought to be a suicide risk is also clothed in green. What's up with that? Green and navy blue are both popular colors because they're considered "soothing." Manufacturers try to avoid colors like yellow or gold because the brightness could agitate the inmates and perhaps keep them up at night.

Anti-suicide smocks were first used in Santa Cruz, Calif.'s county jail in the 1980s, and have been manufactured commercially since 1989. Before that, inmates on suicide watch were often clothed in regular uniforms or (in some facilities) kept completely naked.

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Explainer thanks Wayne Barte of the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization and Jack Harris of Ferguson Safety Products.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.