Suicide attempts common at jail, but why?

SANDUSKY Erie County Jail suicide attempts by inmates are relatively common, but most of the time those attempts are desperat
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010



Erie County Jail suicide attempts by inmates are relatively common, but most of the time those attempts are desperate cries for help, administrators say.

Sheriff Capt. Paul Sigsworth said two Erie County Jail inmates have committed suicide since the early 1990s and about two inmates per year attempt suicide at the jail.

Administrators say they are not sure if Timothy Thayer really wanted to kill himself Tuesday afternoon when he jumped head first off a second floor walkway, smashing his skull into the concrete floor 13 feet below.

He nearly succeeded in becoming the third inmate to commit suicide at the jail. Thayer's attempted suicide raised questions as to whether jail administrators did enough to prevent it from happening.

Erie County Jail Capt. Todd Dempsey and Sigsworth answer questions raised with Thayer's jump.

Q: What sparked this incident?

A: Thayer tried to kill himself Tuesday after pleading guilty earlier that day to felonious assault and gun charges for trying to shoot a relative with a shotgun in January.

Earlier this week, Sigsworth said Thayer appeared reluctant to enter the guilty plea in court that resulted in Thayer being sentenced to seven years in prison.

Q: Why wasn't Thayer put on suicide watch after he was sentenced?

A: After Thayer's arrest in January, Sigsworth said, there was indication from the family that he was suicidal as well as homicidal. When he was taken to jail, jail administrators were advised of this possibility of suicide.

The mental health case worker that evaluated him indicated that he didn't think Thayer was suicidal. At that point, he was removed from suicide watch within a couple days of his incarceration.

Q: When is a jail suicide most common?

A: Dempsey said most suicides take place within 72 hours of incarceration. The first 24 hours are the most critical.

Unfortunately, he said, prisoners attempt suicide on a regular basis and it's difficult to predict who will and won't attempt suicide. Corrections officers do the best they can to recognize that situation and act accordingly, Dempsey said, adding that Thayer hung up the phone and threw himself off the walkway with no warning.

Q: Why weren't corrections officers supervising Thayer in the room where he jumped?

A: Dempsey said the jail is designed for remote observation rather than direct supervision, explaining that the jail doesn't have the staff to spread out in various rooms. He said the jail has a "podular" supervision person inside a control room.

The jail is divided into three sections and there are four to eight corrections officers on duty throughout the day -- eight on night shift, six in the afternoon and four on day shift.

Q: Why do inmates attempt suicide?

A: Dempsey said part of it has to do with freshness of arrest, time of solitude to think about what has happened, embarrassment and uncertainty of the future.

He said jail administrators are big proponents of Alcoholics Anonymous counseling, recreation, visitation and church programs, as a means of releasing the stress of uncertainty.