FROSTPROOF — Just days before Christmas, detention deputies at the Polk County Jail were able to give an inmate the gift of life — by preventing an incarcerated man from committing suicide.
The attempt highlights a widely held belief that suicide rates increase over the holidays — a concept that the Centers for Disease Control has dismissed as a “myth,” and a potentially dangerous one.
It was not just a weak statistic for one inmate, though.
Polk County Jail inmate James Edmond St. Hilaire II, 30, tried to take his own life on Saturday, Dec. 22. The inmate was discovered in life by detention deputies, and is currently at a local hospital being treated for an unsuccessful attempt to hang himself.
According to the report by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, detention deputies at South County Jail Building 2, Dorm F, in Frostproof conduct cell checks every half hour. That’s the dorm where St. Hilaire was being housed.
Around 9:22 p.m. on Saturday, deputies conducted a cell check and found that all of the inmates there, including St. Hilaire, were secure in their cells.
However, 15 minutes later at 9:37 p.m., detention deputies reported, St. Hilaire shut his cell door and covered the vertical window on the door with a towel. At 9:42 p.m., just 10 minutes before a routine check would have been conducted, a detention deputy noticed that St. Hilaire’s cell door was closed and the window covered.
The detention deputy immediately requested that the cell be opened. Moving closer, the deputy discovered that “St. Hilaire had one end of a bed sheet wrapped around his neck and the other end looped around the top of the bunk bed,” noted Donna Wood, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, in her report on the case. “He was in a kneeling position with his knees resting on the floor. He was unresponsive.”
The detention deputy immediately called for assistance. Responding deputies cut the sheet and placed St. Hilaire on the floor.
“Initially, St. Hilaire did not have a pulse,” Wood reported. “Deputies administered emergency life-saving efforts and as a result were able to regain a pulse. Emergency medical personnel were contacted and transported St. Hilaire to a local hospital.”
There were no early warning signs that St. Hilaire would take such a drastic step, Wood said.
St. Hilaire had given “no indication of suicidal threats to detention deputies or other inmates prior to his suicide attempt,” Wood noted, adding that “Due to the deputy’s immediate response to the incident, and the combined life-saving measures of other responding deputies, St. Hilaire is recovering.”
Detectives with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office are investigating this suicide attempt.
It’s not clear if the approaching holidays played any role in St. Hilaire’s actions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide in the United States “remains a major public health problem, one that occurs throughout the year. It is the tenth leading cause of death for all Americans. Each year, more than 36,000 people take their own lives. In addition, more than 374,000 are treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.”
But the CDC’s Web site also notes that suicide attempts do not increase as Christmas approaches, despite a widespread assumption that this is the case.
“The idea that suicides occur more frequently during the holiday season is a long-perpetuated myth,” the CDC reports. “CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate is, in fact, the lowest in December. The rate peaks in the spring and the fall. This pattern has not changed in recent years.”
This myth is also a potentially harmful one, the CDC notes, because it could discourage those trying to prevent suicides by making the problem seem too widespread to handle.
“The holiday suicide myth supports misinformation about suicide that might ultimately hamper prevention efforts,” the CDC’s Web site states.
A report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, titled “Prison Suicide: An Overview and Guide to Prevention,” noted that the issue of inmate suicide has not been widely researched or studied by prison officials.
“While suicide is recognized as a critical problem within the jail environment, the issue of prison suicide has not received comparable attention,” the report notes. “Until recently, it has been assumed that suicide, although a problem for jail inmates as they face the initial crisis of incarceration, is not a significant problem for inmates who advance to prison to serve out their sentences. This assumption, however, has not been supported in the literature. Although the rate of suicide in prisons is far lower than in jails, it remains disproportionately higher than in the general population.”
Earlier this month, officials at the Clark County Jail in Clark County, Washington, introduced an inmate orientation video to help prevent suicides there.
St. Hilaire was arrested by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 27 for two counts of violation of probation. The original charges had been battery domestic violence and possession of drug paraphernalia.
He got sentenced to 120 days in jail for the domestic battery violation of probation charge, and 90 days for the VOP possession charge. He’d been housed in a cell at the South County Jail in Frostproof since his sentencing.
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