Suicide Watch

Marqui Clardy                                                             December 18, 2020

Although the rate of suicide attempts behind bars far exceed those of the general population, jails and prisons are less equipped to handle this issue. The main reason is that penal institutions are intrinsically punitive, which is counterproductive to the nurturing environment needed to help suicidal patients' needs. There's no better example of this than when offenders are placed on suicide watch. The same way incarceration is designed to deter future criminal behavior by punishing offenders, suicide watch is designed to deter future attempts at self-harm by punishing the patient. It's not comforting or reassuring. It's not designed to address our mental health needs or give us a reason to want to live. We're not even housed in a medical or psychiatric environment. Offenders on suicide watch are inexplicably put in solitary confinement. Instead of being "watched" by staff who are specially trained in suicide prevention, we were placed under the supervision of the regular officers assigned to the solitary confinement unit. Because they're accustomed to dealing almost exclusively with the institution's troublemakers, these are the officers who tend to be more strict and less empathetic toward us; yet they are the very ones tasked with tending to us when we're in our most mentally fragile state.

When I was still in jail awaiting my sentencing, I got so depressed at the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison that I tried to take my own life by slashing my wrists. Fortunately, another inmate saw what I was doing and alerted an officer, who in turn called a medical emergency. Before I knew it, about a dozen more officers, nurses, and other staff came rushing into my housing unit and surrounded me. I was taken to the medical triage inside the jail where the nurses stitched the lacerations on my wrists and bandaged them. Upon being notified that I had to be placed on suicide watch, I assumed I would be housed somewhere in the medical department. But to my surprise, a set of cuffs were slapped on my wrists (right over the bandages), and I was escorted to solitary confinement. Even in my mental state, I was clear-minded enough to see that what was happening was wrong. Solitary confinement was where inmates who'd committed serious disciplinary infractions were sent. Why, I wondered, was I being taken there? Was attempting suicide considered an infraction?

The officers who were escorting me made it clear that they didn't take my suicide attempt seriously. They actually taunted me the entire way, joking that I was obviously only seeking attention because I'd cut my wrists horizontally and everyone knows you're supposed to cut vertically. To this day, it still infuriates me that these officers, who were in some capacity members of the jail's suicide prevention staff, saw that situation as a laughing matter. Imagine falling down and seriously injuring yourself, then having to hear the EMTs joke with each other about how "clumsy" you are as they drive you to the hospital. This utter lack of human compassion was my introduction to suicide watch.

Before being put in my cell, all my clothes were taken from me. I was given a green, sleeveless, Kevlar vest that only covered my torso, and told I had to wear it at all times. On top of not having any clothes, the cell I was placed in was extremely cold. By this point, I'd been in jail for months and had been housed in multiple cellblocks. None of them were nearly as cold as that suicide watch cell. It was as if they had purposely turned the thermostat as low as it would go to make being in that cell uncomfortable. The only things inside were a metal toilet, metal sink, metal bed frame (with no mattress), and a surveillance camera in the ceiling. I wasn't given any books, magazines, stationary, or anything else to distract me from the fact that I was naked and freezing my buns off inside that cell. Even sleep was nearly impossible on that hard, cold bedframe. Make no mistake about it: Being left alone in that cell 24/7 with nothing but my thoughts made me even more determined to kill myself. If I thought I had ruined my life before, suicide watch had ironically made things a million times worse.

For those of us who already suffer poor mental health, being put on suicide watch is almost torturous. I actually attempted suicide a second time while I was in that cell by ripping strips of fabric from my vest and making a noose, which I attempted to hang myself with. When the officer saw what I was doing on the surveillance camera, he came to my cell and threatened to shackle my wrists and ankles to the corners of the bed frame and leave me in that position for 24 hours if I tried it again. Threatening and punishing offenders are basically what correctional officers do for a living, which is why they aren't the people who should be overseeing suicide watch. You cannot threaten depression out of someone, nor can you punish them for being depressed.

I haven't had to be put on suicide watch since leaving jail, but I have seen several other offenders put on it, and I can tell you that every prison in which I've been housed also uses solitary confinement for suicide watch. That practice has somehow become the norm. I'm sure for a lot of offenders who may be contemplating suicide, the prospect of being isolated in one of those small, freezing cold cells with no clothes is what deters them from following through. Maybe that's the institutions' whole point. But that doesn't address the individual's mental health or get to the root of WHY they want to take their own life. It helps the prison, but it doesn't help the patient. This is something these institutions need to tackle if there's to be any real hope of lessening suicide attempts behind bars.