10 Indicators to Look for in Suicidal Inmates

Suicide is the leading cause of preventable deaths in jails across the country. Inmates are four times more likely to attempt suicide compared to the general public. There are many methods to help reduce the risk of inmate suicide, starting with mental health history and behavioral observation.


Suicide prevention starts with intake screening. Here are 10 indicators officers should look for:

  • Talking About Death
  • Severe Sentence
  • Severe Guilt or Shame
  • Same-Sex Rape
  • Significant Health Problems
  • Substance Abuse
  • Past Incarceration
  • Family Suicide
  • Recent Significant Loss
  • Agitation or Aggressiveness


After the initial screening, consistent observation of behavioral patterns and interactions is a key mitigating factor in reducing the risk of inmate suicide. Look for signs of deteriorating mental health during these observations. Signs include changes in behavior such as sudden hostility, seclusion, and increased depression or anxiety. Self-inflicted harm (cutting, burning, starvation) and the giving away of possessions are also red-flags that may indicate an inmate is considering suicide.

If an inmate displays any of these signs, the officer should make a report of the incident and document the observed behaviors. (Note: If an official diagnosis is needed, contact a mental health professional.) Those who feel alone and emotionally isolated are more likely to act on impulse and may not consider or know of alternative methods of coping. Creating a system that encourages open communication about inmate mental health can help lower and prevent negative impulses, self-harm, and suicide attempts.

Twenty-five percent of inmate suicide occurs within the first 24 hours of incarceration. Properly logging interactions with at-risk inmates protects both the life of the inmate as well as the interest of the jail. This important process creates awareness of the risks and needs posed by each individual inmate as well as a physical log of the steps taken to help the at-risk individual. Logging and reporting is made easier with technology systems that provide time stamps and scheduled alerts for interactions including medications, location checks, and flagging high-risk individuals for added attention and awareness. These systems help reduce human error and improve quality of care for those in the prison system.