Ariel Castro death: How common is suicide among prison inmates?

Inmates in state prisons are less likely to commit suicide than are those held in local jails. Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro was not under a suicide watch when he hanged himself in an Ohio prison, and apparently had not had an independent psychological examination.

Tony Dejak/AP
In this May 9 photo, Ariel Castro appears in Cleveland municipal court on charges of kidnapping and rape, after three missing women escaped his home three days before. Mr. Castro, serving a life sentence for the kidnappings and rapes of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, was found hanging in his cell Sept. 3 at the Correctional Reception Center in Orient, Ohio.

Suicides are relatively rare events in state prisons, but the hanging death of Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro in an Ohio state prison is refocusing scrutiny on how prisoners are evaluated for doing harm to themselves or to others.

Suicides by prisoners in state prisons have jumped 10 percent between 2001-11, peaking in 2006 with 219 such deaths, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. They accounted for 5.5 percent of state prison deaths in 2011. 

Overall, prisoner deaths in state prisons over the last decade have increased nearly 17 percent to 3,353 in 2011. The overwhelming cause of death is illness.

State prisoners are less likely to commit suicide than are those incarcerated in local jails, where suicides represented 35 percent of deaths in 2011. The reason is that state prisoners are more assimilated to their environment and resigned to their sentences, whereas those in county jails are newcomers and are more uncertain of their fates, says Lindsay Hayes, project director for the National Center on Institutions & Alternatives, in Mansfield, Mass.,

“They are individuals right from the street and who have just been arrested. They are highly agitated and are coming into an environment new. To them, the fear of incarceration, the unknown aspect of how long they will stay there, the uncertainty of their charges – these are all factors where a reaction could be suicide,” Mr. Hayes says.

Mr. Castro was sentenced in August to life in prison plus 1,000 years for the decade-long kidnapping and torture of three women. The story attracted international attention for the systemic abuse that Castro inflicted over that time, and his insistence, expressed during his sentencing, that he was a loving father to a daughter he conceived by rape by one of the women, plus his claim that he was trying to maintain “a normal family.”

During the investigation, Cuyahoga County prosecutors said a suicide note and confession penned by Castro was found at his home. He was placed under suicide watch after his arrest, but it is uncertain if the watch was lifted once he was found competent to stand trial.

Suicide watches are never permanent, says Hayes, and they require a battery of assessments to determine if a prisoner, upon entering the state prison system, warrants a higher level of observation, such as every 15 minutes or continually.

“It’s easy to put someone on suicide watch, but difficult to take him off. You don’t put someone on indefinitely. You put them on it only if you clinically believe it is necessary," he says. An inmate is removed from suicide watch when an assessment "determines the inmate is no longer suicidal by their words or behavior or a level of stability over time,” he says.

The Ohio Department of Corrections, in a statement released late Tuesday, said Castro, who was incarcerated at the Correctional Reception Center outside Cleveland, was found hanging in his cell at 9:20 p.m. Eastern time. He was not under suicide watch at the time, but was being checked by guards every 30 minutes. He was awaiting a series of mental and physical evaluations before being transferred to a permanent facility, said JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Corrections.

Jaye Schlachet, Castro’s attorney, told Reuters that prison authorities denied requests for an independent psychological examination, both in the county jail and the state prison.

Suicides in prison occur at a higher rate than in the general population. A 2010 study commissioned by the US Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections calculated that the suicide rate in county jails – where suicides are highest – were 38 deaths per 100,000 inmates – about three times greater than for the general US population, which sees 11 such deaths per 100,000 citizens. 

Suicide rates in both jails and prisons are down from the past 20 years because of “increased scrutiny,” Hayes says. “Correctional administrators now have been convinced that there are things that can be done to prevent suicides,” such as better staff training, safer facilities, and improved procedural standards, he says. 

Ms. Smith says the state plans to review how Castro managed to commit suicide.

On Wednesday, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty released a statement calling Castro a coward. “This man couldn’t take, for even a month, a small portion of what he had dished out for more than a decade,” Mr. McGinty said.

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