Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


castro-home

Ariel Castro's home. It was demolished on August 7, 2013. (PHOTO: THD3/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Kidnappers Are the Most Likely to Kill Themselves Behind Bars

• September 04, 2013 • 12:34 PM

Ariel Castro's home. It was demolished on August 7, 2013. (PHOTO: THD3/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Committing suicide while locked up is much less common than it used to be, but Ariel Castro’s crimes put him in the group most likely to off themselves.

Ariel Castro, four weeks into his own lifetime confinement after holding three women captive for more than a decade, committed suicide sometime Tuesday night. Officials at Correctional Reception Center in Orient, Ohio, said he was segregated from the main prison population but was not on a specific suicide watch; “He was housed in protective custody which means he was in a cell by himself and rounds are required every 30 minutes at staggered intervals,” the corrections department told CNN.

Maybe because of the modicum of media attention they get–journalists often won’t report non-public or non-public-figure suicides outside of lock-ups–prisoner suicides seem fairly common. Are they?

Yes, and no, but for kidnappers in particular, yes.

Incarceration in this case is a great social equalizer: Only in prison and jail do ethnic differences in suicide approach a unified rate for all.

Suicide behind bars is definitely more common than on the outside, but not all inmates and not all institutions are the same. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, using figures from the years 2000 to 2011, the rate of suicides in U.S. jails has been rising—the actual number in 2011 was 310. In state prisons the rate has been pretty stable over the last decade, with 185 actual suicides in 2011. While it’s not a perfect rule of thumb, especially as overcrowding lawsuits jumble up where inmates are warehoused, jails usually hold those awaiting or on trial and prisoners serving sentences of a year or less; state prisons usually hold convicted prisoners whose sentences are a year or longer.

Suicides historically have been much more common in jails, where presumably criminals (or the accused) face, and fail, “their first crisis of incarceration.” Studies from the early 2000s find half of jail suicides occur in the inmate’s first week locked up. The vision of an “I can’t take it no more” lifer finally offing himself after years of deprivation and overcrowding, while by no means incorrect, also isn’t the most pressing threat.

From a recent low of 36 suicides per 100,000 jail inmates in 2007, the rate increased 18 percent to 43 suicides per 100,000 inmates in 2011. Suicide is responsible for about a third of jail deaths in the U.S., with illnesses counting for about half. Homicides, including staff-related incidents, are responsible for roughly two percent of jail deaths. And in larger local jail systems, the suicide rate may be half what it is in smaller systems, while in the very smallest systems suicide rates may be five times greater than in the largest.

Looking at the same stats for prisons, illness accounts for a much higher percentage of mortality—just under 90 percent. Longer, and in some cases like Castro’s, unending, sentences mean more prisoners will die behind bars of natural causes like cancer and heart disease, and in fact a majority of prisoners dying of disease are 45 and older. Suicides account for about five to six percent of jail deaths, and homicides again roughly two percent. But the number of prisoners per 100,000 who commit suicide is much lower than in jails, running between 14 and 16 each year.

Suicide rates for both jails and prisons are much lower than they were in the 1980s, down by almost two thirds. And a majority of those who do kill themselves were, like Castro, considered “clean”—i.e. not at risk of suicide.

There’s an ethnic disconnect between who commits suicide behind bars. White inmates kill themselves at a much higher rate—roughly three times greater—than either black or Hispanic inmates; 67 percent of jail suicides are white. Black prisoners actually kill themselves at a lower overall rate than do their demographic twins on the street, and have the lowest suicide rate in prison period. Incarceration in this case is a great social equalizer: Only in prison and jail do ethnic differences in suicide approach a unified rate for all.

And violent offenders are the most likely to take their own lives, whether in jail or prison, with kidnappers the most likely to die by their own hands in either venue, followed by murderers and rapists. Castro was convicted of both kidnapping and rape.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.