Authored by: Dr. Melissa Caldwell, CCHP-MH – Vice President of Mental Health Services

Proper construction of a jail can translate into safety and security for the community at large by containing persons who pose a risk to the free public. The architecture of a jail can also mean safety and security for incarcerated persons and those professionals working within. Most suicide prevention initiatives focus on the professional actions of healthcare and custody staff; however, the layout of the facility can be just as important, if not more so.

For communities that are planning to remodel or build a new facility, the following are considerations for construction that take into account known risk and protective factors related to architecture. For existing facilities, the following may assist in identifying areas of your jail that may require added attention and preventive measures (e.g., greater staffing).

Avoid blind spots. Unimpeded lines of sight are essential to the officer’s ability to identify an impending crisis and to intervene in a timely manner. Suicides can happen at any time and minutes can mean the difference between life and death. Construction materials that are durable, yet allow for a clear view into housing units and cells, are recommended (e.g., plexiglass or equivalent).

Avoid tie off points. Hanging/asphyxiation is the primary method of suicide in a jail. Detainees have ready access to materials to construct nooses and other strangulation devices (e.g., bedding, clothing). Although bars allow for improved viewing compared to solid, non-transparent walls or doors, they are antiquated and increase the risk of suicide by hanging. The jail environment should be constructed with minimal ability to tie off hanging devices. Consider beds and plumbing without gaps (e.g., solid platform beds, ligature resistant sinks & toilets). Sprinkler heads and lighting fixtures should be inaccessible and unable to bear weight. Mirrors should be non-breakable and flush with the wall. Certainly group toileting and shower areas require a modicum of privacy. These are areas that require greater attention to the issue of tie off points. It is recommended that privacy doors with the ability to see the detainees head and feet be utilized, rather than solid barrier walls or shower curtains with traditional rods.

Minimize access to upper tiers. Some detainees will take their lives by jumping from the upper tier. Housing at-risk persons on the lower tier/ground level may not be sufficient to prevent self-harm attempts. It does not take long for a person to run upstairs and plunge themselves over the railing. It is recommended that upper tiers be closed off with transparent materials (shatter-proof glass) rather than be constructed with open railings which allow for jumping or a tie off point for hanging.

Avoid isolation of at-risk persons. Traditional approaches to jail suicide prevention have entailed placing the at-risk person into a designated cell (alone) for staff monitoring. If a detainee is not agitated or actively assaultive, placement and housing with others is recommended. It decreases isolation, allows for peer support, and enables quicker intervention in the event of an in-process suicide. Frankly, there are greater “eyes and ears” to alert to an emergency.

Staff presence is a critical component. Cameras are not a replacement for direct observation. Detainees should be housed in an area within the jail where regular checks can still be carried out. Optimally, an officer’s post and sole responsibility would be monitoring of persons on a suicide watch. Housing with other detainees can be preventative, but does not remove the need for continued staff supervision. Bunkies take naps… 

As most suicides occur in the first few days of incarceration (see graph), it is recommended that jails consider implementation of designated housing unit(s) which ensure that newly booked persons will be housed with others in direct observation of custody staff. This may also improve classification decisions by allowing a behavioral monitoring period.

Please note that the recommendations included are not exhaustive. Consider consultation with experts in jail architecture and suicide prevention. 

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Published: 28 December 2018.  All materials have been prepared for general information purposes only. The information presented should be treated as guidelines, not rules. The information presented is not intended to establish a standard of medical care and is not a substitute for common sense. The information presented is not legal advice, is not to be acted on as such, may not be current, and is subject to change without notice. Each situation should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

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