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Slate's Explainer: Inmates on 'Suicide Watch'


California death row inmate Stuart Alexander died in his cell on Tuesday, three days after prison officials placed him on suicide watch. Alexander, a former sausage factory owner, was awaiting punishment for the murder of three meat inspectors in 2000. The cause of his death hasn't been determined yet, but the case got the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondering: What happens when an inmate is put on suicide watch? Here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS (Slate): Suicide watch is mostly designed to prevent hanging, which is far and away the most common suicide method in prisons and hospitals. An observation room might have little more than a mattress on the floor. Any stray bits of fabric could be used as a noose. Some states make sure the inmates sleeps with an extra thick blanket that can't be tied or torn into strips. In extreme cases, a prisoner may be undressed and given a paper gown.

Even if a suicidal prisoner is able to craft some ropelike implement, he won't be able to hang himself unless he has somewhere to tie the other end. Rooms are designed without any protrusions from the ceiling walls or furniture. Window cages, sprinkler heads and bulk handles all pose problems.

Many suicide watch rooms have 24-hour video surveillance, but prison staff also perform routine in-person checks. Staff members might drop by once for a half-hour or 15 minutes on average, but they mix up the schedule so the prisoner doesn't know when they're coming. Some institutions, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have made fellow inmates responsible for these checks. One recent study found that inmate observers were more effective than authority figures at calming down a prisoner on suicide watch.

But since it takes only four or five minutes to hang yourself, in some states inmates deemed to be at acute risk have someone watching over them every minute of the day.

CHIDEYA: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor, and that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andy Bowers
Andy Bowers oversees Slate's collaboration with NPR?s daytime news magazine, Day to Day. He helps produce the work of Slate's writers for radio, and can also be heard on the program.
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