Ariel Castro and the Grim Reality of Prison Suicides

The Cleveland kidnapper exhibited several risk factors before he hanged himself. Why wasn’t he on suicide watch? Brandy Zadrozny on why prevention is so difficult in our prison system.

On Tuesday night, notorious Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro was found dead, hanging in his cell. The 53-year-old hanged himself with a bed sheet just one month into a sentence of life plus 1,000 years for the abduction and rape of three young women.

Castro’s sudden death was shocking, but it wasn’t surprising, according to the people who study prison behavior and suicide prevention. Statistics show that people who are incarcerated—specifically ones that share characteristics with Castro—are more likely to kill themselves. Castro had also exhibited signs that he was suicidal even before his imprisonment. Investigators searching his Cleveland home in the wake of his arrest found a suicide note, though it was later dismissed by prosecutors as an attempt for sympathy from “a narcissist.”

So why wasn’t he on suicide watch? The answer is complicated.

In August, Castro was moved from the Cuyahoga County jail—where he had briefly been on a suicide prevention schedule—to the Correctional Reception Center in Columbus, a facility meant to evaluate prisoners before sending them to a permanent prison. In jail, he had been monitored every 15 minutes, his activities and behaviors meticulously logged. He was taken off watch on June 5 when officials determined he didn’t exhibit sufficient risk, and was never put back on after his conviction and subsequent transfer to the prison system. In the facility where he died, Castro was checked “every 30 minutes at staggered intervals” according to prison spokesperson JoEllen Smith.

Once in prison, Castro was actually less likely to kill himself; suicide is more of a problem for jails than prisons. In 2011, the suicide rate in local jails was four times the rate of that in prisons, at 43 per 100,000, half of them occurring within the first week of admission, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2011, 35 percent of inmate deaths in jail were the result of suicide.

The reason for the disparity is twofold, says Lindsay Hayes, the project director for the non-profit National Center on Institutions and an expert in suicide prevention in prisons.

In jails, Hayes says, people are sometimes going in for the first time, facing uncertainty and fear. Many are also intoxicated at the time of their arrest, which can trigger an emotional response. And, he says, while jails are getting better, there are still many that lack good training and intake screening practices that prisons have worked to institute.

Overall, suicide rates for state prisoners have fallen sharply in the last 30 years from 34 per 100,000 in 1980 to 14 per 100,000 in 2011. The number is not very different from the suicide rate of Americans in the free world: 12.4 per 100,000 in 2010. This historical decline, Hayes says, is a result of better training and better screening.

“The classic response used to be, ‘If an inmate want to kill himself, there’s nothing you can do about it.’” Hayes says. “Fast forward to today and jails and prisons are much better resourced, and have tools now to identify suicidal behavior and manage it.”

But if prisons are better equipped to handle suicide, then how could the Correctional Reception Center have missed Castro?

The most obvious response to this—that the facility should have put Castro back on suicide watch—is not as simple as it sounds. His risk factors, including mental illness, suicidal ideations as exhibited by the suicide note in May, and a lifelong sentence, would have never changed, Hayes said, and therefore, perpetual suicide watch wasn’t an option unless he was demonstrating some unique disturbing behavior or thinking. In fact, he says, being on suicide watch can make the possibility of self-harm more likely.

“Suicide watch is very restrictive,” Hayes says. “You are stripped of all of your clothes and put into a safety smock. You’re given finger food instead of utensils. All of your possessions are taken out of your cell. You’re not allowed out, except maybe to shower. You can’t put someone on suicide watch and leave them there indefinitely, because if someone wasn’t suicidal before that, being on watch for an extended period of time would make them more suicidal.”

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Just as ironically, the very measure meant to protect Castro—keeping him isolated from other inmates—was likely to have contributed to his death.

“It’s a very lonely existence,” Hayes says. “You are locked up 23 hours a day. You spend your one hour out alone. If you use the shower, or the phone, go out to shoot basketball, it’s all done alone. Castro had a couple of months of knowing what his future was. This predicament, the lifestyle that was laid out for him was something he was living and could very well have influenced his decision.”

As the World Health Organization notes, prison suicides most often occur by hanging, in isolation, and during times when staffing is the lowest, like nights or weekends.

Indeed over 90 percent of U.S. inmates who kill themselves are found hanging—either by bedding, as in Castro’s case, or with clothing attached to an anchoring device such as a bunk, bars, or a cell door, according to a national study of jail suicide.

An investigation should soon determine not whether Castro’s death was deserved, but if it could have been prevented.