Matthew T. Mangino
April 21, 2017
Former NFL star Aaron Hernandez’s death in a Massachusetts prison has been ruled a suicide. Hernandez had been serving a life sentence without parole for a 2013 murder.
A former member of the New England Patriots, Hernandez’s death came five days after a jury acquitted him in two other deaths, which prosecutors alleged were precipitated by a spilled drink.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker told ESPN.com, “Anytime someone kills themselves in prison, something clearly went wrong,″ adding that he wasn’t drawing any conclusions until the full details of the investigation were released.
Rarely do governors take the time to comment on the death of an inmate. If they did, governors would spend an awful lot of time on the subject. The most recent statistics reported by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 4,446 inmates died while in custody in 2013.
Suicide is a problem is jails and prisons across the country. Suicide has been the leading cause of death in jails every year since 2000. In 2013, a third (34 percent) of jail inmate deaths were due to suicide. The suicide rate increased 14 percent, from 40 suicides per 100,000 jail inmates in 2012 to 46 per 100,000 in 2013. A far cry from the 129 suicides per 100,000 inmates in 1983.
Deaths by suicide in prison are far higher than the number of deaths that result from suicide in the general population -- which is only about 1.6 percent. Jeremy Samuel Faust wrote this week in Slate, “It is no exaggeration to say that when a person becomes incarcerated, what the inmate should fear the most is not a skirmish with the leader of some terrifying gang, but what might happen to his own mind.”
There are two primary causes for jail suicide according to the National Institute of Corrections -- first, jail environments are conducive to suicidal behavior and, second, the inmate is facing a crisis situation.
Certain features of the jail environment enhance suicidal behavior -- fear of the unknown, distrust of the authoritarian environment, lack of apparent control over the future, isolation from family and significant others, shame of incarceration, and the dehumanizing aspects of incarceration.
In addition, certain factors often found in inmates could predispose them to suicide -- a history of excessive drinking, drug use and mental illness. These factors become exacerbated during the first 24 hours of incarceration, when the majority of jail suicides occur. In addition, many jail suicide victims are young. Neither of which appear to apply to Hernandez -- he was 27-years-old and had been incarcerated for 4 years.
These issues are compounded by the fact that many inmates have poor coping and problem-solving skills, rendering them unable to deal with difficult emotions. Additionally, according to Corrections.com, many have a history of behaving impulsively -- doing things on the spur of the moment without thinking ahead to the consequences of their actions. Clearly, Hernandez appeared to fall into the categories of poor coping skills and impulsivity.
There are warning signs as well, and Hernandez may have displayed some. The Associated Press described Hernandez during his trial as upbeat, constantly backslapping his lawyers, letting out bellowing laughs and blowing kisses to family members in the courtroom.
An indicator of suicidal plans is often a sudden calmness. Many individuals who are contemplating suicide have a sense of resignation that can result in them acting very calm and even peaceful in the days leading up to their suicide.
Hernandez’s life was a story of tragedy, anguish and pain for so many people. Maybe his death will bring awareness to the toll of prison suicide.
-- Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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