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Preventing Suicide in Correctional Facilities: The Correctional Officer’s Role

Content Warning: This article discusses methods for completing suicide.

Correctional facilities and staff have a legal responsibility and ethical obligation to protect individuals in their custody and care from self-harm, including suicide. Numerous myths surround the issue of suicide, such as “You can’t stop individuals in custody from killing themselves if they want to do it,” or “Suicides usually occur suddenly without warning.” Post-reviews of situations involving individuals who die by suicide in correctional facilities demonstrate that detainees or inmates almost always display risk factors and warning signs of suicidal ideation.

Suicide is often considered to be an issue to be handled by mental health professionals. However, most suicides occur in facility housing units during nonprogrammatic hours. Therefore, front-line correctional staff often carry the heaviest burden to identify, monitor, and respond to suicidal behaviors in correctional facilities.

Make sure your correctional staff have the training and understanding to respond appropriately to behaviors that may raise concern for suicidal ideation.

Identifying signs of suicide in correctional facilities

What to look for

Having a thorough understanding of risk factors, stressors, and warning signs for suicide will help correctional officers identify individuals at risk. This can be done during direct observation of and communication with detainees or inmates.

Risk factors are characteristics or situations that could increase an individual’s likelihood of suicide. Some risk factors include:

  • Gender: Men are at higher risk
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity: 40% increase of suicide in those who do not identify as heterosexual or cisgender
  • Military service: 21% increase of suicide
  • Mental health disorders, particularly mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Limited social support
  • Family or personal history of suicide
  • History of trauma
  • First-time arrest or conviction for a violent offense
  • Lengthy sentence

Warning signs are “red flag” behaviors that alert correctional officers that an individual may be at risk for suicide in correctional facilities. Some warning signs include:

  • Making statements or threats to harm/kill themselves
  • Talking, writing, or drawing about wanting to die
  • Looking to secure means to complete suicide
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Inability to sleep or sleeping all the time
  • Uncontrolled anger or aggression
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Giving away personal possessions
  • Engaging in behavior to get put in isolation or separate housing

Stressors are feelings or situations unique to being in a correctional environment that could heighten an individual’s likelihood of suicide. Some stressors include:

  • Guilt or shame over incarceration
  • Loss of family and friends
  • Loss of personal choice, privacy, and control over their lives
  • Callous treatment by correctional staff
  • Fear for personal safety
  • Problems with other offenders or staff

Offenders can also experience stress or anxiety during critical times (for example, after experiencing a personal loss such as the death of a partner or family member, before or after significant dates in their lives, before or after hearing dates, or immediately after intake or during holidays) and after critical incidents (threats or acts of violence or sexual assault, emotional or stressful visits with family or legal representative, or receiving bad news from home).

When to look for signs of suicide in correctional facilities

Intake: The American Correctional Association recommends that jails and prisons screen all offenders during intake to identify risk factors for suicide and immediate risk of self-harm. This information is used to inform housing and security decisions. Correctional staff who are not responsible for conducting these screenings still need to be aware of the process their facility uses and follow any recommendations provided to them based on the outcomes of the screening.

Daily Observations: Offenders may not disclose suicidal ideation at intake, or they may become at-risk for suicide post-intake. Risk for suicide in correctional facilities is fluid, meaning it can fluctuate throughout their period of incarceration. Correctional officers’ high level of contact with offenders puts them in a unique position to know when stressful events occur and notice behavioral changes that may be indicative of possible suicidal ideation. They should always be alert for risk factors, stressors, and warning signs for suicide and follow their agency’s policies and procedures for responding immediately.

Monitoring warning signs

Monitoring individuals for risk factors is probably the most important role correctional officers assume in suicide prevention and response. They should monitor offenders in the general population to identify stressors and warning signs as well as observe those placed on suicide precautions.

Correctional officers must be vigilant in adhering to the suicide precautions or special conditions prescribed for individuals who are identified to be at risk for suicide in correctional facilities. The facility’s mental health providers or facility administrators usually determine these protocols and communicate them to staff. Precautions could relate to:

  • Housing assignments
  • Observation intervals
  • Clothing, bedding, and hygiene products
  • Privileges

Responding to suicide in correctional facilities

Correctional staff should be trained and prepared to handle an immediate response to a suicidal situation and the provision of life-saving measures.

The three most common types of suicide in correctional facilities are:

  • Hanging and strangulation
  • Drug overdose
  • Self-inflicted wounds

Responding to any of these or other types of suicidal situations requires quick thinking and immediate action. No matter the type of suicidal situation to which correctional officers are responding, priority must be given to the safety and security of offenders and staff in the facility.

When correctional officers directly observe or are made aware of a suicidal situation, they should be prepared to follow these basic procedures:

  • Call for backup immediately and notify the control center and shift supervisor via radio.
  • Respond to suicidal situations in pairs. In most facilities, protocols dictate that backup must be present before entering the cell. While one officer is providing medical attention, the second officer should be contacting and communicating with the emergency medical providers, mental health staff, and shift supervisors.
  • Follow the facility’s protocols regarding securing or locking down cells, units, and other areas of a facility during a suicidal situation.
  • Always practice standard precautions to protect against potential infectious disease.

Correctional facilities should have a suicide prevention program, which details the protocols for identifying, monitoring, and responding to suicidal situations. Staff should be familiar with their facility’s specific suicide prevention program and protocols and what is expected of them as correctional officers.

Failure to follow their facility’s suicide prevention program could result in civil and criminal liabilities for the facility as well as themselves. For those reasons and the safety of all involved, having educated and prepared correctional officers is vital.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is hope. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.


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