Jail suicides: unexpected link to tougher drunken-driving laws

The state-by-state crackdown on drunken driving is putting a new kind of detainee behind bars in local police departments - and the result may be an increase in jail suicides.

''It is John Q. Citizen. He's a nice guy - never been in trouble before. He's locked up overnight or over the weekend. And he starts wondering, ''What is my wife going to say? What about my family, my friends? Will I lose my job?,'' explains Diane Hendrick of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

These fears, compounded by guilt, alcohol (a depressant), and the forbidding cell environment, sometimes lead to a tragedy that typically occurs within the first three hours of confinement.

''There is a direct correlation between the advent of the tougher drunk-driving measures and the incidence of lockup suicides and attempts. The years 1982 and 1983 account for 30 percent of the known drunk-driving-related suicides in the previous 10 years,'' states a new study by the Massachusetts Special Commission to Investigate Suicide in Municipal Detention Centers.

The suicide problem is not confined to alcohol-related arrests. But suicides most often occur when those in jail, on whatever charge, are there for the first or second time, experts say.

In theory, stiffer drunken-driving laws shouldn't increase the police holding-cell population. Most states have set up detoxification centers for inebriates to sober up in and be treated. But, too often, the centers are full or administrators refuse to take unruly clients police bring them, say jail suicide researchers. As a result, many are put in inadequately designed and monitored police cells, they say.

The profile of a jail suicide victim is very similar to that of people now being arrested for drunken driving, says Lindsay Hayes, project director for a national jail suicide study done in 1981 by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA).

That study recorded 419 suicides in local jails holding detainees for less than two days. It was finished before many states began toughening drunken-driving laws, and Mr. Hayes believes the numbers are rising. The Massachusetts study shows a majority of suicides are alcohol or drug related, but the problem is occurring among all types of individuals arrested. It estimates these deaths occur at a rate of one per month in the state.

This week state Sen. Richard A. Krause and Rep. Nicholas J. Buglione, cochairmen of the study, will file legislation to try to find better ways of handling detainees.

The proposal would require constant cell surveillance by a paid or volunteer monitor, or:

* Cell checks once every 15 minutes.

* High-impact plastic over all cell bars.

* Listening devices in each cell.

The bill also calls for a mandatory suicide reporting system and a watchdog commission to implement new jail inspection-construction standards and police training in suicide detection and prevention.

The suicide problem has yet to be defined by most states because the reporting procedures are inadequate. Only California and New York have enforced mandates requiring localities to report jail suicides to the state, according to Mr. Hayes of the NCIA.

Even within these states, the ''effectiveness at dealing with suicides is so sporadic, I wouldn't point to any state that has universally dealt with the problem,'' he says. ''But a lot of states have begun to take a look and some localities have dealt with it.'' The number of suicides has been reduced at the Pima County Jail in Arizona due to a screening and pre-release program and in San Diego, Calif., due to an intensive detoxification care program, Hayes says.

Bruce Danto, a jail suicide expert, author, former policeman, and now a California psychiatrist, agrees that progess, albeit uneven, is being made. He says Michigan is currently the most progressive state, and notes that Contra Costa County in California and Jefferson Parish in Louisiana have ''excellent jail administrations.''

Changes have not always been wrought out of a concern for detainees' safety. ''This issue is becoming important because there has been a lot of litigation against police departments and local governments,'' says Dr. Danto. He has testified in more than 20 of an estimated 40 cases nationwide.

Danto agrees with many of the steps recommended in the Massachusetts report: ''It boils down to screening, monitoring, and better designs for jail cells.''

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