Suicides in prisons and jails are several times higher than the general population (Thigpen, Beauclair, Hutchinson & Zandi, 2010) for a variety of reasons: incarceration is stressful, mental health issues can be exacerbated in the corrections environment, and overcrowding and understaffing mean that suicidality can be hard to detect. This led to the development of the JSAT.
The JSAT, or Jail Suicide Assessment Tool (Carlson, 2002) is a semi-structured tool featuring 24 domains associated with suicidality, These categories explore supports in your life, physical health, mental health, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and more. This tool is NOT to be confused with the similarly named Jail Screening Assessment Tool, also abbreviated as JSAT.
Each domain or category in the JSAT features some sample words to help guide the answering of that question. For example, the category “Psychiatric treatment” includes the sample words “counseling, medication, compliance, hospitalization, diagnoses.
Components of the JSAT:
The 24 components of the JSAT can be clustered under five broad categories, Mental Health, Physical Issues, Personality and Emotional State, Social Supports and Other / Situational.
- Psychiatric treatment
- Mental status
- Depression (current signs)
- Reality testing (current signs)
- Self-harm history (could also be classified under Physical Health Issues)
- Recent suicide signs
- Suicidal intention
Physical Health Issues
- Physical health
- Physical pain
- Chemical abuse/use
Personality and Emotional State
- Help self
- Cognitive themes
- Coping resources
- Measured reasoning
- View of death
- View of suicide
- Important relationships
- Social Status:
Other / Situational
- Legal status
- Institutional adjustment
- False presentation
Scoring the JSAT
Each category is scored + (positive, lack of suicide risk), – (negative or risk of suicidality) or n (neutral). Additionally, the tool provides some ways of operationalizing these categories.
Looking at the category “Suicidal intention”, the category is described as “Resolution to act, lethal plan with available means.” To mark + (absence of risk) the prisoner must convincingly deny any intent to harm themselves, while to mark – (presence of risk) they must express a desire to die by suicide in the near future and/or have a lethal suicide plan with available means.
Time for Administration is between 30 and 120 minutes
Research Supporting the JSAT
There have been no research studies that I am aware of evaluating the JSAT in a corrections population. It was prepared for the Federal Bureau of Prisons based on a previous tool called the Prison Suicide Risk Assessment Checklist (PSRAC), which itself has not been evaluated either.
Evaluation of the JSAT
Although there is no published research review of the JSAT, the general principles of suicide risk assessment can be applied to confirm whether the JSAT is an effective tool for evaluating risk. The principles include:
- Does the tool appear to measure what it claims to? (face validity)
- Will the tool cover the important risk factors and warning signs of suicide? (content validity)
- If two professionals complete the tool on the same prisoner in the same circumstances, will they reach the same conclusion? (reliability)
- Can the completed tool be defensible in court if a suicide occurs? (documentation)
Let’s review each of these below.
Face Validity of the JSAT
The JSAT includes elements covering history of suicide attempts, current suicide warning signs, presence of depression, self-injury and substance abuse issues, social supports, view of suicide and many other risk factors.
On this basis the JSAT appears to be face valid for suicide – though I would question if all the elements are necessary in a comprehensive assessment. For example, “Cooperation” is identified as whether there is a good rapport between the interviewer and the client, as evidenced by a no-suicide contract. This is clearly not evidence-based (no suicide-contracts do not work), and rapport is not a suicide risk factor.
A minor criticism as well, some of the categories in the JSAT are oddly named. For instance, the criteria for the category Character is listed below:
- “+” No indication of prominem character disorder traits.
- “-“A diagnosed personality disorder; prominent, innexible. maladaptive character traits which cause significant functional impairment or distress.
Given the Character item explores the presence of a personality disorder (which is also not a major risk factor for suicide on its own outside of Borderline Personality Disorder) it makes much more sense to simply name it “Personality Disorder.”
Content Validity of the JSAT
Content validity explores whether the elements of an effective suicide risk assessment is covered. The acronym IS PATH WARM (Lester, Mcswain & Gunn, 2011), developed by the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) can be used to verify suicide warning signs.
Mapping the IS PATH WARM mnemonic onto the JSAT criteria we see the following matchup:
The presence of suicidal thoughts. This is covered by the JSAT category Suicidal Intention, which has as a risk factor “Expresses desire to commit suicide in the ncar future; has a lethal suicide plan with available means.”
Current or former substance abuse issues. This category is found in the JSAT as Chemical Abuse/Use where the risk factor is “Presently intoxicated or going through symptoms of withdrawal; recent history of drug or alcohol abuse”
Purposelessness is adequately covered by the JSAT category Hope. The risk factor is described as “no future orientation or life goals; cannot identify reasons to live.”
The JSAT category Mental Status is defined as “Significantly impaired orientation; disturbed mood/affect; thought content or form showing signs of psychosis; severe anxiety; severe agitation.”
Trapped does not appear to be represented in any of the JSAT categories.
See purposelessness above.
See Substance Abuse above.
See anxiety above.
Recklessness or impulsiveness is explored in the JSAT category Measured Reasoning, defined as “sudden destructive action toward self/others, impulsive. a hot-head.”
See Anxiety above.
Summary of JSAT Content Validity
Given the above, it appears the JSAT has adequate content validity for the risk factors of suicide, though some of them appear to be lumped together in multiple categories. A more effective tool would separate these categories to make sure the nuances are not overlooked.
Reliability of the JSAT
Reliability describes the ability for a tool’s consistency. This makes no claim to the correctness of the evaluation (known as validity), but rather that two people using the same tool with the same person will come to similar results.
Given the detailed operationalization, the reliability of the JSAT should be good. For instance, looking at “View of Death”, the risk and non-risk options are below:
- “+” Convincingly expresses a desire to survive.
- “-” Would welcome a natural death; can name good things that would occur as a result of dying
This is specific enough that two assessors should be able to come to the same conclusion.
Documenting a Jail Suicide Assessment
Would the JSAT stand up in court? This is often one of the most important elements of a risk assessment. Even if it is valid, if you can’t “show your work” and demonstrate that you have adequately considered all elements, you may be legally exposed in the event of a client suicide.
Obegi, Rankin, Williams, & Ninivaggio, (2015) explore the elements of a risk assessment required to stand up in court. They use the acronym CAIPS, which stands for:
- Chronic and Acute Factors
- Imminent Warning Signs
- Protective Factors
- Summary Statement
Chronic and Acute Factors / Imminent Warning Signs
The chronic and acute factors, and imminent warning signs of the JSAT have been adequately explored above.
One major problem with the JSAT is that a simple + or – sign will not provide the detail required to defend the presence or absence of a risk factor. For example, reviewing “View of Death” above, how does the clinician prove the client welcomes a natural death? What good things do they believe would occur upon their death?
Protective factors are explored fairly extensively in the JSAT, with Social Supports, Important Relationships, View of Death (which explores the idea of a perceived burden), Hope (future plans, reasons for living, hope for the future), Help Self (problem-solving ability and sense of control), Cognitive Themes (presence of optimism), and View of Suicide (beliefs or values that resist suicide).
The final element of the CAIPS element is the Summary Statement. This is the major element missing from the JSAT, as noted above. A detailed risk assessment requires both a discussion of the individual risk factors and warning signs, as well as an overall summary noting their risk and prescribing the appropriate interventions (e.g. removal of suicide means or surveillance.)
Case Study Using the JSAT
Brandy et. al. (2008) provide a number of suicide case studies, one of which is adapted here to demonstrate use of the JSAT. For more information see the original source.
- 49-year-old, single male who is in the county jail for attempted robbery
- Noose discovered in his personal effects
- Client is awaiting a 10 year prison sentence
- Notes if he is sentenced to 10 years he would hang himself, making another noose if the first one was taken away
- Cares deeply for his girlfriend and her children but feels they don’t care for him
- Refused mental health support and had nothing to live for
An evaluation using the JSAT would result in negative (risk present) selections in at least the following categories:
- Important Relationships
- Legal Status
- Cognitive Themes
- Recent Suicide Signs
- Suicide Intention
The most important elements here are the lack of supports, hopelessness and expressed intent to die. This client would be considered high risk for suicide given the lack of protective factors and should be restricted from accessing means for hanging.
Applying the DCIB Risk Assessment as an alternative risk assessment for confirmation, we note that this client is showing suicide desire, capability, intent and has a lack of protective factors.
Brandy L. Blasko , Elizabeth L. Jeglic & Stanley Malkin (2008) Suicide Risk Assessment in Jails, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 8:1, 67-76, DOI: 10.1080/15228930801947310
Carlson, D.K. (2002) Jail Suicide Assessment Tool. Federal Bureau of Prisons. Accessed electronically on Mar 12 2016 from http://www.usmarshals.gov/prisoner/assessment_tool.pdf
Lester, D., Mcswain, S., & Gunn Iii, J. F. (2011). A TEST OF THE VALIDITY OF THE IS PATH WARM WARNING SIGNS FOR SUICIDE. Psychological Reports,108(2), 402-404. doi:10.2466/09.12.13.PR0.108.2.402-404
Thigpen, M.L., Beauclair, T.J., Hutchinson, V.A., Zandi, F. (2010) National Study of Jail Suicide: 20 Years Later. National Institute of Corrections. Accessed electronically on Mar 12 2016 from http://static.nicic.gov/Library/024308.pdf
Obegi, J. H., Rankin, J. M., Williams, J. J., & Ninivaggio, G. (2015). How to write a suicide risk assessment that’s clinically sound and legally defensible. Current Psychiatry, (3), 50.