King County Jail (KCJ), located in Seattle, Washington, is reconsidering how it responds to inmates who attempt suicide or hurt themselves. As it stands, KCJ and many other correctional facilities all over the country punish inmates for acts of self-harm. Inmates can be placed in solitary confinement and/or charged fines for trying to hurt themselves. In anticipation of today’s release of the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Jail Project’s most recent video about Ricardo Rodriguez and his experience being punished for self-harm, Director William Hayes of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) gave the following response:
“We agree that there is no benefit in disciplining [inmates with serious mental illness] who self-harm. We also understand that those in isolation, regardless of degree of mental illness, are emotionally challenged as this environment is not therapeutic.”
Specifically, Director Hayes reported that DAJD will continue to work with the AVID Jail Project to: (1) evaluate current policies regarding self-harm and property damage; (2) track incidents of self-harm and property damage, regardless of whether an infraction is imposed; and, (3) educate staff on addressing behavior related to mental health symptoms once policy changes have been made.
When inmates violate jail rules or disrupt order in the jail, it is not surprising that jails tend to respond with punishment. As correctional facilities, jails are set up to respond to problematic behavior from a correctional perspective, not a therapeutic one. However, DRW and many other stakeholders believe that punishing inmates for self-harm is ineffective at preventing future self-harm and harmful to their physical and mental health. Many individuals who engage in self-harming behavior do so as a result of mental illness or intellectual disability. Current research indicates that sanctions like disciplinary segregation often exacerbate such behavior, thus increasing the risk of injury to the individual as well as heightening security concerns within the facility. Responding to inmate acts of self-harm with a treatment approach, rather than punishment, can require a significant culture shift by jail administrators and staff.
By making this shift, KCJ joins a growing number of correctional institutions nationwide who have reconsidered how they respond when inmates attempt suicide or self-harm, including the Vermont and Washington State Departments of Corrections. DRW and AVID are hopeful that more correctional facilities around the state, and the country, will follow this example.