Why Is it So Easy for Prisoners to Commit Suicide? And Can Doppler Radar Help Solve the Problem?

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Sept. 4 2013 2:24 PM

Why Is it So Easy for Prisoners to Commit Suicide? And Can Doppler Radar Help Solve the Problem?

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Ariel Castro stands with his head down during his arraignment on kidnapping and rape charges on May 9, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Ariel Castro apparently hanged himself in his prison cell Tuesday night, one month into the life-plus-1,000-years sentence he received for kidnapping three Cleveland women and holding them captive for a decade. Though Castro was in protective custody, which meant that somebody checked on him every 30 minutes, he was still able to commit suicide without anybody noticing. In a post for the Slatest, Josh Voorhees noted that “the most obvious question now facing prison officials is how the 53-year-old managed to hang himself while in protective custody.” It might be an obvious question, but it’s not an unfamiliar one. Prisoners and jail inmates commit suicide all the time—and corrections officials are hard-pressed to stop it.

In a recent report on mortality rates behind bars, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that suicide was by far the largest single cause of death in local jails from 2000 to 2011. (The suicide stats were much lower for state prisons during that same timespan, but, even so, a state prison inmate was about three times more likely to die from suicide than from homicide.) Most of these suicides were hangings. But unlike a gallows, which will snap your neck and kill you quickly, prison hangings are often drawn-out affairs in which the inmate maintains contact with the ground and slowly asphyxiates to death. Theoretically, many of these suicides could have been prevented if corrections officials would have noticed them in time. But America’s jails and prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, and consequently there is much that goes unnoticed.

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While a suicide watch will reduce the risk that a given inmate will kill himself, it can’t eliminate that risk entirely. As Daniel Engber wrote for Slate in 2005, in many states, a suicide watch basically means that corrections officials put the prisoner in an observation room and visit him at random intervals to make sure he is still alive. The prisoner is often watched by closed-circuit camera, too, but cameras sometimes have blind spots, and the footage is not always monitored closely. In acute cases, suicide watches can involve 24-hour in-person surveillance, but that’s too expensive to maintain indefinitely.

Could better technology help jails and prisons prevent more inmate suicides? In a recent report sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, researchers from GE described a prototype Doppler radar-based alert system that could help “indicate a suicide attempt in-progress by observing and interpreting motion related to heartbeat, breathing, and limb movement.” The system would be installed in jail cells, and when it detected physiological responses to asphyxiation—“spontaneous gasping, struggling associated with the mental anguish of oxygen starvation (dyspnea), and sudden changes to or absence of heartbeat and breath”—it would alert corrections personnel, who would then come and revive the inmate.  Plus, because it is Doppler radar-based, maybe it can also predict the weather!

I don’t know whether this Doppler system is truly effective, although GE’s initial tests seem promising. But I do think these sorts of technological solutions are worth exploring in greater depth, because people who want to stop suicide behind bars need all the help they can get.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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