Despite suicide watch, inmate deaths common
As news of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in his Manhattan jail cell exploded on social media, one of the questions people have is: Was he on suicide watch, and if so, how did he end up killing himself?
Epstein’s death comes one day after the release of a damning trove of documents that named his madam and wealthy and powerful men in politics, academia and business who may have been provided with underage girls for sex.
At one point during his jailing, Epstein, 66, was placed on suicide watch. But it appears he was taken off suicide watch since then. Epstein’s death became public Saturday morning.
Christine Tartaro, a professor of criminal justice at Stockton University in New Jersey, said that while Epstein’s death raises concerns about how he was handled behind bars, inmate suicides are common in pre-trial facilities.
“They are the leading cause of deaths in jails,” said Tartaro, the author of “Suicide and Self-Harm in Prisons and Jails.”
Even the fact that Epstein had previously been on suicide watch, then moved off of it, is not unusual in jail settings, said Tartaro. Without access to Epstein’s psychological assessments, it’s impossible to know if his case was handled properly, she said.
“The point of suicide watch is to get them through the initial suicide crisis, and then to work on helping the inmate navigate the correctional environment without attempting suicide,” Tartaro said. “There are situations in which the inmate will feel better, and then regress and become suicidal again.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation’s jails had a suicide rate of 46 per 100,000 in 2013, the last reported year. That’s higher than the rate in general society, and in prisons, where inmates have been already convicted.
WHAT IS SUICIDE WATCH?
In general, suicide watch is an aggressive monitoring process used to make sure that someone in some type of custody – either in jail, prison or a hospital – can not kill themselves.
Officials place people on suicide watch when there is a strong risk that the person is vulnerable to suicide – either through warning signs, direct stated intention or previous attempts. Epstein was found on the floor of his cell in a fetal position with neck wounds on July 24, for instance.
People on suicide watch are usually put in an observation room and kept away from potentially dangerous objects – including a belt, fabric that can be fashioned into a noose, or sharp objects, according to Slate.
DEATHS ON WATCH
But sometimes a determined person will still stymie law enforcement and die even while on a suicide watch.
Former NFL New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in his Boston prison cell in 2017 while serving a life sentence for the first degree murder shooting death of his former friend Odin Lloyd in 2013, The Associated Press reported.
Arcan Cetin, 20, charged with killing five people in a Washington state mall in 2016, hanged himself in his cell at the Snohomish County Jail in 2017, CNN reported.
Robert Seman, a triple-murder suspect accused of molesting and killing a 10-year-old girl and then killing her grandparents in an arson fire, jumped to his death from the fourth floor of an Ohio courthouse while in custody, in what police called an apparent suicide in 2017.
Stuart Alexander, known as the “Sausage King” and in a maximum surveillance hospital cell at San Quentin State Prison, was found unresponsive in December 2005, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Turns out Alexander had put on 80 pounds while in custody, had health issues, and it was later determined he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Ariel Castro, convicted in the kidnapping and raping of three girls he held prisoner at his Cleveland home for a decade – impregnating one of them – killed himself by hanging in his Ohio prison cell in 2013, WBNS 10TV reported. He was isolated from other prisoners “for his own protection,” officials said at the time.