When Officer Willie Thames looked up into the eyes of Inmate 4757, he knew the inmate was going to jump.
Thames was the only officer in G Pod, an area of the Leon County Jail used primarily for inmates who have been put in disciplinary confinement.
Inmate 4757 had been let out to shower. When Officer Thames returned to the officer's station after checking on another inmate, Inmate 4757 was standing outside the railing on the second tier of cells, one end of a sheet tied around his neck and the other tied around the railing. He was looking down at a 15-foot drop.
Thames hit an alarm that alerted the entire jail.
Lt. Jackie Martin, the Watch Commander, was one of the first to arrive. He started talking, immediately.
"You and I go a long way back." He said to Inmate 4757. "I've always been able to talk to you." But Inmate 4757 was too agitated to listen. He wanted to see his brother, also an inmate in the Leon County Jail.
As Lt. Martin talked, he signaled another officer to get the brother. "It was a simple thing for a person's life." He says.
Martin continued talking. Meanwhile, other officers began moving slowly underneath the inmate hoping that if he did jump, they could break his fall.
After several tense minutes, the brother arrived, climbed the stairs to the second tier and went to embrace his brother. But when Inmate 4757 felt himself being pulled back over the railing to safety, he pushed his brother away and jumped.
Fortunately, the knot in the sheet didn't hold and Officer Albert Wheaton broke the fall, catching the jumper's knee right between his eyes.
Inmate 4757 could have become a statistic that Thursday afternoon.
The rate of suicide in custody is far greater than the rate of suicide in the general population, according to an article published in The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. Researchers Lindsay M. Hayes and Eric Blaauw note that the rate of suicide in jails is estimated to be 107 deaths per 100,000 inmates. That figure represents a rate approximately nine times greater than the rate of suicide found in the general community.
Most jail personnel are taught to look for signs of suicidal behavior, but a comprehensive mental health evaluation of jail inmates is simply not practical in most jurisdictions. Jails are primarily used for the temporary housing of inmates. In many jails 60 percent of inmates leave within 24 hours, according to Ken Kerle, Managing Editor of the American Jail Association. "You can't do a thorough screening on everybody." He says.
And, Inmate 4757 certainly did not fit the profile of the typical jail suicide. Jail suicides are usually young, in prison for the first time, drinking or using drugs to excess, have a prior history of suicidal attempts, or an approaching court date.
In contrast, Inmate 4757 was no stranger to the jail, in his mid-30s, not using drugs or alcohol and looking forward to getting out of G Pod, according to Lt. Martin who talked to him two days before. "He was in good spirits." Says Martin.
In eleven years of jail work, Lt. Martin says he has never been able to tell when an inmate is going to try to commit suicide. But, Officer Wheaton who has worked as a correctional officer for over nine years, says sometimes you can tell when you see that "deep stare."
"There's so much pressure on those guys." Says Lt. Martin. "It has a lot to do with their families and lives. He's in an area [in G Pod] where he can't even get a visit. All his privileges are taken away. He has no exercise privileges. That combined with being in jail and worrying about the family on the outside."
Some researchers, such as Hayes and Blaauw, warn that jail and prison suicide rates may increase in the future because of harsher and/or mandatory sentencing laws, dramatic increases in the death penalty, and the use of life sentences, overcrowded penal systems, the increased cases of AIDS/HIV and the overall "graying" of the inmate population.
But, fortunately for Inmate 4757 and his family, this Sunday he is not merely a statistic. .