Fabian Cruz, an inmate in New York City’s jail, Rikers Island, was visited by a mental health clinician Wednesday afternoon. Cruz told the worker he would kill himself and the clinician requested that the inmate be placed in a mental observation unit as a precautionary move.
Thursday afternoon, 24-hours later, Cruz wrapped a sheet around his neck, knotted it to the sink’s water spigot and went limp. Two weeks ago Cruz had pled guilty to sexually abusing his girlfriend’s 14-year old daughter. Cruz was looking at five years in prison upon sentencing January 12.
Riker’s Island has developed a reputation as a medieval place. It’s so draconian that federal prosecutors are planning to sue New York City over the facility. Riker’s isn’t the only facility to have been in the news about inmate suicides.
When the body of Ariel Castro was found in his cramped jail cell in September, 2013, he wasn’t the only inmate to kill himself that year — but he was the best known. Sentenced to life in prison, Castro created a shrine of family images and a Bible, took a sheet and hung himself.
Both Cruz and Castro had been placed on suicide watch and in both cases a mental health worker had suggested the men be moved to mental health observation rooms within the prison. The system let both men down and both men died.
In 2010 suicide was the biggest cause of death among inmates at local jails and was one of the five top reasons of death in state prisons. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that of the 918 jail deaths in 2010, 305 were suicide. Out of the 3232 prison deaths, 215 were by suicide. The same year, suicides made up more deaths in state prisons than drugs, alcohol, homicide and accidents combined.
The figures available to the public are not broken down by institution or by state. Often, unless it’s a high profile inmate, like Castro, or a facility with a long history of problems, like Rikers, the public does not learn specific counts.
A 2007 World Health Organization (WHO) report called for all prisons and jails, regardless of size, to have a comprehensive suicide prevention policy.
“The main component for any suicide prevention program is to make sure the correctional staff are properly trained,” the report said.
According to federal prisoners’ rights advocate Arkady Bukh, the rate of prison suicides nationally is down over the past ten years with an average of 15 per 100,000 annually. Thirty years ago, the rate was nearly double. However, the number is still disturbing and simply can’t be ignored.
Female Inmates and Suicide
Cathy Smith found out she was returning to the penitentiary for theft. She wasn’t planning on going back. She obtained a knife and attempted to slice her throat.
“I’d convinced myself to not use drugs, steal and sleep with strangers,” says Smith. “I couldn’t talk myself out of suicide.”
Smith said, “I got a knife — the ones I cut meat with. I should be dead, but God came up with a little different plan.”
In prisons, Smith’s story is far from unique. According to the WHO study, suicide is the most recurrent cause of death in prisons and jails. The same study says that women inmates try suicide five times more often than women who are not incarcerated. While male inmates have higher success rates, female inmates attempt it two times as often as their male counterparts.
New York City’s Rikers Island has such a big challenge among women that those incarcerated can ask for salaried work as a suicide-prevention assistant. Trained prisoners provide a prisoner, already cut-off from family, with a compassionate ear and help make a potentially lifesaving connection.
New aides are taught to keep a watchful eye on prisoners suspected of being at high risk. Inmates in this category include the young and those who have never been incarcerated before; parents who were confined for killing a child, substance abusers, prisoners without outside support and mentally unstable inmates.
A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study determined that female prisoners have greater occurences of mental health difficulties than male inmates in all corrections settings. In state prisons, the difference was drastic: 73 percent of female inmates as opposed to 55 percent of males
The solutions may not be found in prisons. Alternatives to incarceration programs, ATIs, are increasing in approval among judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys. Susan Gottesfeld, Executive Director of the Osborne Association, an ATI advocacy group, said, “Alternative to incarceration programs are fast becoming a part of the philosophy of New York City’s court system.” The programs permit non-violent criminals to have access to structured programs which address difficulties leading to criminality.
Yvonne Behan, with New York State’s Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives, says her agency is funding over 200 ATIs in New York State alone. As reforms continue to whittle away at the Rockefeller Laws, sentencing guidelines will be loosened and judges will be given more leeway in recommending ATIs over prison. To prepare for the anticipated increase, New York State is providing $50 million in additional funding to both secular and faith-based ATIs that apply for the funding.
A Lucky One
Cathy Smith considers herself one of the lucky ones. The last time she went to court, she was looking at prison time for embezzling from her two jobs due to her crack habit. A judge intervened and set her to Teen Challenge, a faith-based ATI program. Smith completed the program and now works in TC’s admin department full time. If she had been returned to prison, things may have ended differently.
“If I had an upper bunk, I’d look and say, what would happen if I jumped headfirst?”