Police guard the entrance of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center where Aaron Hernandez's body was found.

Credit: Elise Amendola/AP

Suicide Watch In Prisons Isn't A Perfect System

April 19, 2017

Former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez was not on suicide watch when he hanged himself early this morning, leading many people to wonder: How does a prison know when people are likely to harm themselves?

Former Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral says without the prisoner telling anyone, it’s hard to tell whether he or she is suicidal.

“It would have to be an expression of suicidal ideation or behavior that indicated that someone wanted to kill themselves that would alert officials,” Cabral said during an interview on Boston Public Radio today. “Or depending on the circumstances under which the person is incarcerated and coming from court, maybe something in their file that’s made known to corrections officials [would indicate] that this person has a tendency toward that, or has attempted it in other institutions.”

Cabral implied this system is imperfect, saying many individuals who do alert corrections officers or attempt suicide are crying out for help, and others who hope to successfully take their own lives will keep it a secret.

“What’s presented here, at least as far as we know, and this is actually fairly common, is someone who gives no outward appearance ... of wanting to kill himself and goes about it in a very methodical premeditated way, because that is a person who is motivated to complete the suicide,” said Cabral.

She said the public is especially shocked by prison suicides because they happen in a “controlled environment.” But she also pointed out that prisons effectively prevent many suicides, though some people slip through the cracks.

“Corrections departments, both at the local and the state level across the country, prevent thousands of these every single year,” she said. “The nature of suicide is that preventing them from killing themselves and even rendering treatment doesn’t necessarily get at the reasons a person wants to kill themselves.”

Cabral speculated that Hernandez was suicidal, but was spending each day in a trial that kept him from harming himself.

“A trial is a distraction,” she said. “You get up and you put on your suit everyday, and you interact with your attorneys and you’re in a semi-normal environment.”

According to Cabral, the return to a prison’s sights and sounds can lead to a “dark night of the soul.”

“The nature of being incarcerated means that if there’s going to a be a time when you are alone and are confronting whatever haunts you, that is the environment that is conducive to thinking about all of those things, at three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning,” she said.

Andrea Cabral is the Former Suffolk County sheriff and Secretary of Public Safety. To hear her interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.

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