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

December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 22 • 4:00 AM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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