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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.

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