U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Suicide Watch Technologies Could Improve Monitoring, Reduce Staff Time

Date Published
January 11, 2012

The suicide rate in jails and prisons has been going down [1], but it remains a troubling problem and traditional suicide watch requires dedicated staffing, taking officers away from other duties.

An automated suicide warning system is a cost-effective, non-invasive approach to behavior monitoring, and more proactive than waiting for a suicidal attempt to justify the added personnel required for a suicide watch.

NIJ has supported the development of a prototype demonstration system, and now is funding an evaluation in an operational facility, that can measure an inmate's heart rate, breathing rate and body motions without being attached to the individual. A wall-mounted range controlled radar (RCR) system — originally designed for home security motion detectors — measures subtle motions on the body's surface caused by heart and lung activity. Alarms are activated when the system detects suspicious changes in heart rate, breathing rate or body motion.

The potential benefits for agencies implementing a suicide watch technology are compelling. Corrections agencies should, of course, review their policies, and any applicable legal issues, before placing inmates under electronic surveillance. Potential benefits include:

  • Less obtrusive, less prone to destruction. A key feature of the device is that it is less obtrusive. Incarcerated persons are prone to tamper with or destroy monitoring devices but a device that does not require physical contact could make tampering or destruction less likely.
  • Detect disguised suicide attempts. Correctional officers mistake cleverly disguised suicide attempts as normal behavior. An automated system could safeguard against human error.
  • Provide continuous monitoring. An inmate under traditional suicide watch typically is checked on by corrections staff every fifteen minutes. Even with this intense effort by corrections facilities, inmates still have ample time to commit or attempt suicide. Monitoring technology can provide continuous surveillance to supplement the visual inspections and alert officers quickly to any attempt.
  • Fewer people needed to staff suicide watch. By installing these devices, prisons may be able to reduce the number of officers needed to monitor those on suicide watch, freeing staff for other corrections tasks.
  • Watch more persons at risk. An automated system could be installed to monitor inmates who are at high risk, such as those on suicide watch or new persons awaiting trial.

About the System

As part of a multiphase project funded by NIJ, GE Global Research developed a radar-based system consisting of:

  • "Personal health status" sensors that can be enclosed in a box on the ceiling to remotely and non-invasively monitor inmates' pulse and breathing.
  • Network connections to remote monitors.
  • Software designed to interpret motion data and create a decision tree for when to notify officers.

Phases I and II — Phase I focused on modifying hardware, developing software algorithms to establish the baseline capability of the system, and gathering baseline activity-state performance results.

In phase II, the grantees gathered field data at the Western Correctional Institution (WCI) of the Maryland Department of Corrections. Ten correctional officers volunteered to help researchers capture signals in actual jail cell conditions by mimicking inmate behavior. Among other findings, the overall performance of the alarm logic from the WCI dataset was consistent with lab testing results.

Read the final report for phases I and II, Unobtrusive Suicide Warning System.

Phase III — In the current program phase (phase III), GE Global Research and United Technologies Research Center integrated the system into a prison rated light fixture, implemented the algorithms on a central computer, and used an Ethernet protocol to communicate the signals from multiple rooms to the central computer. The grantees validated performance of the hardened system in the laboratory and determined that the system configuration was suitable for operational deployment testing and evaluation.

Read the final report for phase III, Unobtrusive Suicide Warning System.

Date Published: January 11, 2012