Over the last decade, Pennsylvania prisons have seen a 103 percent rise in the suicide rate. So far, no one is sure why. The Department of Corrections (DOC) claims the increase is on par with an overall increase in suicides in Pennsylvania. The general suicide rate has also gone up over the past decade, but only by 22 percent. Suicide attempts in prisons have tripled in the past four years.
Factors known to increase risk
Although experts cannot find a single cause for the increase, they do know certain factors increase the likelihood an inmate will attempt suicide:
- Early on in sentence. Some inmates are at higher risk at the beginning of a sentence, when they are adjusting to prison life.
- Mental health issues. Unsurprisingly, inmates with mental health issues have a higher risk of suicide. Many times, the prison system does a poor job of treating mental illness.
- Substance-use disorders. Drugs in the prison system are nothing new, but the opioid epidemic is like nothing we have ever seen. More people are entering the system with an addiction issue. When these issues combine with mental illness, the risk compounds.
- Life sentences. Inmates serving life sentences have always been considered a suicide risk.
- Synthetic cannabinoids. Use of synthetic versions of marijuana is a growing trend in prisons. The DOC links the use to more assaults and self-harm in prisons, as some people have a bad reaction when they come off the drug, but experts are not sure this links to suicides. Prison suicides tend to be done by hanging.
What is the DOC doing to prevent suicide?
The DOC has a responsibility to care for the inmates in its charge. That includes preventing suicide. Unfortunately, they don’t always take the responsibility seriously. Inmates report abuse, humiliating treatment and lack of action when inmates with known mental illness were crying out for help or exhibiting clear signs of suicidal behavior.
One case, Christopher Gilchrist, sparked a lawsuit by his family. Gilchrest had a diagnosed mental illness and was in the psychiatric observation cells. Another inmate on janitorial duty found Gilchrist fashioning a rope around his neck with a sheet and towel, which he should not have had on suicide watch. The janitor, Stephen Leonardo, says he talked Gilchrist into removing the rope several times on February 13th, but Gilchrist committed suicide on the 14th. The state police report states that the guards saw the hanging sheet at least an hour prior to the suicide, but did nothing. Gilchrest had supported a fellow inmate’s lawsuit a year before alleging prison abuse. The guards then turned to tormenting Gilchrist.
The DOC claims they are making improvements to suicide prevention policies, but whether those improvements reverse the upward trend of prison suicides remains to be seen.