Report Seeks to Reduce High D.C. Jail Suicide Rates

WASHINGTON — In response to a high number of suicide attempts, an independent review was recently released outlining how D.C. jails can improve both facilities and policies to help prevent inmate suicide. Conducted by Lindsay M. Hayes, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, the report contained numerous recommendations for improving safety and oversight throughout the facility.

Since November 2011, 165 inmates at the 38-year-old jail have attempted suicide, four of which succeeded. This places the jail’s 2013 suicide rates higher than those for both the general U.S. population and the D.C. Department of Corrections. Hayes’ three-day review of the jail and subsequent report named poorly designed facilities and lack of staff training as the primary contributing factors.

Of those who attempted suicide, nearly 100 did so by hanging; swallowing foreign objects, jumping from a height and head banging were also listed as methods. In response, Hayes’ Oct. 14 report recommended placing inmates two to a cell, as well as “removing all handles from sinks and desks, placing fine mesh over grates, placing plastic or other material on entire head/feet ends of bunk beds, replacing woven metal bed bottoms with solid material, and future purchases of linens, blankets and uniforms that are more difficult to tie.” Elements such as wall padding and certain light fixtures that could facilitate suicide attempts are also being improved, and medications are being more strictly monitored. Razors have since been completely removed.

Another suicide attempted during his review also gave Hayes insight into staff’s management of these events. The correctional expert wrote “Despite the seriousness of the incident, the inmate was later placed on Behavioral Observation status, not Suicide Watch or Suicide Observation.” He in turn recommended more thorough mental health evaluation upon entry, and increased monitoring of those with elevated risk.

Hayes also observed that many jail staff were not adequately trained as health providers, and were unable to make proper suicide risk assessments. To address this deficiency, he stressed that the noticeably punitive follow up treatment of those who have attempted suicide must end, and that suicide-proof cells should be made available to all 12,000 inmates that cycle through the facility annually.

However, the reviewer also recognized that many officials within the system were eager to be a part of the solution. "This writer met numerous DOC and Unity Health Care officials and supervisors, as well as officers and mental health clinicians, who appeared genuinely concerned about inmate suicide and committed to taking whatever actions were necessary to reduce the opportunity for such tragedy in the future,” wrote Hayes.

Today, Washington DOC officials say they have already made considerable progress in improving policies that may have contributed to mental health issues and suicide attempts. Corrections Director Thomas Faust reports that Mayor Vincent C. Gray has already dedicated $600,000 in funds to re-educate current staff and to improve cells.

Despite these plans, city council member Tommy Wells again proposed the construction of a new and improved jail facility. Wells believes a new and more efficient jail complex could reduce expenses and free up funds for expanding mental health treatment.