How do the requirements of standard 115.15(d) apply to inmates who have been placed on suicide watch? Is there a distinction between suicide watches being conducted via video and those under in-person observation?
The definition of “suicide watch” varies across corrections agencies. Suicide watch generally refers to placing an actively suicidal inmate on a heightened level of monitoring due to high risk of imminent suicidal action.
Actively suicidal inmates should be subject to constant observation. Some agencies also consider suicide watch to include situations where constant monitoring may not be clinically indicated. For example, inmates may require frequent, periodic, and unpredictable observations not to exceed 5 or 15 minute intervals. While suicide watch should be conducted under the direction of a mental health staff member, suicide precautions are often initiated by correctional staff before a mental health evaluation can occur. Continual observation is essential to ensure inmate safety before a mental health professional can assess the situation.
Regardless of the definition of suicide watch, the PREA standards do not prohibit cross gender staff from being assigned to conduct a suicide watch. The relevant portion of standard 115.15(d) states, “The facility shall implement policies and procedures that enable inmates to shower, perform bodily functions, and change clothing without nonmedical staff of the opposite gender viewing their breasts, buttocks, or genitalia, except in exigent circumstances or when such viewing is incidental to routine cell checks.”
Therefore, a cross gender staff can be assigned to suicide watch, including constant observation, so long as the facility has procedures in place that enable an inmate on suicide watch to avoid exposing himself or herself to nonmedical cross gender staff. This may be accomplished by substituting same gender correctional staff or medical staff to observe the periods of time when an inmate is showering, performing bodily functions, or changing clothes. It may also be accomplished by providing a shower with a partial curtain, other privacy shields, or, if the suicide watch is being conducted via live video monitoring, by digitally obscuring an appropriate portion of the cell. Any privacy accommodations must be implemented in a way that does not pose a safety risk for the individual on suicide watch. The privacy standards apply whether the viewing occurs in a cell or elsewhere.
The exceptions for cross gender viewing under exigent circumstances or, for inmates who are not on constant observation, when incidental to routine cell checks apply to suicide watch as well. Because safety is paramount when conducting a suicide watch, if an immediate safety concern or inmate conduct makes it impractical to provide same gender coverage during a period in which the inmate is undressed, such isolated instances of cross gender viewing do not constitute a violation of the standards. Any such incidents should be rare and must be documented.