Prisoners don’t get much sympathy from the general public. Murderers in prison get less. Murderers in prison who commit suicide get even less.
But they still have rights, and those rights can be violated by authorities who know or should know that a prisoner has suicidal thoughts or tendencies and who fail to ensure that the means for committing suicide are not readily available in the prisoner’s cell. In the aftermath of the news that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez committed suicide by hanging himself with a bedsheet while imprisoned in Massachusetts, it’s fair to ask whether those responsible for Hernandez knew or should have known that he was a threat to himself.
Prisoner suicide is hardly a rare phenomenon. From 2001 through 2012, the suicide rate for Massachusetts prisoners nearly doubled the national average, with 38 in eleven years.
In January 2017, the Massachusetts legislature established a special commission on prisoner and correction officer suicides, with the goal of improving the procedures for determining whether a prisoner presents a suicide risk and for preventing suicide from occurring.
With Hernandez, it’s unknown whether he was saying or doing things to suggest he may harm himself only five days after securing an acquittal on double murder charges. Those questions will surely be asked in the coming days, and the reality is that the persons who are in the best position to know how he was behaving in prison also will have a strong incentive to downplay or to dismiss any evidence that Hernandez may have been inclined to take his own life, since it will mean that they should have done something to stop it.