Monday, June 11, 2007

What I Think About Paris Hilton


I'm really not one for celebrity gossip but this news (and I use the term loosely) item had some good correctional teaching points so I thought I'd address it. Besides, it's just a matter of time before somebody drops a question to My Three Shrinks asking my opinion about Paris Hilton and her jail status.

So here goes:

Looking at this from the Sheriff's viewpoint, I can imagine what was going through his mind. He's got a new inmate who is:

1. a high profile case
2. a previously upstanding citizen
3. crying, distressed and not eating
4. has a known mental disorder (in treatment at arrest)
5. has an active substance abuse problem
6. is in isolation in a single cell
7. is serving a relatively short sentence
8. is within 24 to 48 hours of incarceration

Egad. The next thing this Sheriff is going to imagine is Paris Hilton hanging dead in a jail cell. She has eight separate risk factors for a correctional suicide and it is not good to have a dead celebrity in your facility. Ideally, the proper intervention would be to get her referred for crisis intervention services as quickly as possible. Educate her about what to expect and how the incarceration will run. Get her referred for psychiatric evaluation and pharmacology, if indicated. If all else fails, use suicide observation to preserve safety. I don't know the LA jail or what resources they have; given her relatively short sentence the Sheriff may have felt the more efficient alternative was to release her to home detention.

Home detention is a good tool used to reduce institutional crowding but it is limited to people with relatively short times left on their sentences and to non-violent offenders. Given that she only had less than a month to serve, keeping her in jail was a waste of space. In Charm City she probably would not have been incarcerated for a first probation violation; I think she probably was treated more harshly than the average defendant. Maybe this was because of her celebrity status or maybe she didn't present herself well in court. In our prison system the decision to put someone in home detention is made without judicial input; it's the institution's perogative to assign someone there.

She was being kept in a single cell because of her celebrity status, but she was seen crying and not eating there. Most completed correctional suicides are done by inmates in single cell status. The facility would have had a reasonable concern about maintaining her safety under these circumstances. One option would have been to put her on suicide watch involuntarily, but again this involves a fair amount of embarrassment and discomfort to the person you're doing this to. I understand she is now housed in a special needs unit where she is being monitored, another reasonable alternative. The term "special needs unit" refers to a specific tier or placement within a facility for vulnerable inmates who require therapeutic monitoring. It is not the same as protective custody in that a special needs unit is controlled and regulated by mental health staff. People with chronic serous mental illnesses or developmental disabilities may be housed on a special needs unit. Every facility does not have a special needs unit; they usually just exist in larger (over 500 beds) facilities so your average small local county jail may not have one.

So that's what I think. I'm sure she'd be welcome back at the Charm City zoo or the local television station anytime. As long as she doesn't drink.