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Inmate Suicide and the Psychological Autopsy Process

NCJ Number
Jail Suicide/Mental Health Update Volume: 8 Issue: 3 Dated: Winter 1999 Pages: 3-9
H. G. Sanchez Ph.D.
Date Published
7 pages
Although not currently a routine practice in the correctional environment, psychological autopsies can provide valuable information about the process by which certain inmates become increasingly suicidal and eventually decide to end their lives; this article describes a method for completing psychological autopsies in a prison setting.
The psychological autopsy is a retrospective reconstruction of a decedent's life for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of the cause of death. It has been used in a variety of settings with various populations and as part of both group and individual studies. The prison setting offers a wealth of information about an inmate's life that can assist in analyzing the reasons for the inmate's suicide. Conducting a psychological autopsy requires reviewing various information on the inmate, including incident reports, institutional files, and health records. A psychological autopsy also requires an investigation of the death scene and interviews with numerous persons. In order to maintain the integrity of the investigation, the investigator should not have had any prior association with the decedent or the staff members responsible for the inmate's care and custody. In some situations, it may be necessary to use an outside expert, perhaps from another correctional facility, to conduct the psychological autopsy. This article includes an outline of the information required for a complete psychological autopsy. The outline includes the documentation of precipitating events, presuicidal functioning, and a motive for the suicide. Also discussed are the use of the autopsy report and ethical and legal issues. 7 references