The death of James Kauffman in his jail cell is one of several high-profile suicides that have taken place while the person was incarcerated, and matches a trend of increasing suicide rates in jails and prisons across the country.
Kauffman, who was charged in the 2012 murder of his wife, April, was found face-down in his cell Jan. 26 with a torn piece of bed sheet twisted into a wire-tight rope that was looped around his neck and around the bunk, according to sources.
A long suicide note also was left near his bed, sources said. The note is not available to the public under the Open Public Records Act.
Kauffman joined former NFL football player Aaron Hernandez and convicted rapist and murderer Ariel Castro as high-profile criminals who died by suicide while incarcerated.
In each of those cases, the men had been sentenced to life in prison or faced the probability of life in prison.
All three also had never served time behind bars. Kauffman, despite threatening to kill himself in June when he was arrested, was not on suicide watch at the time of his death.
Christine Tartaro, a Stockton University professor who has written a book on jail suicides, said the sudden change of lifestyle from freedom — and in Kauffman’s and Hernandez’s cases, wealth — to knowing they would spend the rest of their lives inside a small cell would have been a complete shock that could have contributed to the suicides.
“(Kauffman) was not accustomed to the jail culture, which tends to be an urban setting ... just by him being white could have made him an outsider,” she said, adding the fact the Pagans motorcycle gang was trying to kill him could have been another factor in his suicide. “Even though he was moved to the Hudson County jail away from the gang, there is always the chance there would be associates in that facility. He would have lived his life looking over his shoulder.”
But high-profile criminals are not the only ones who die by suicide in jail. In her book, Tartaro says juvenile offenders are at a disproportionate risk of dying by suicide because they are not as accustomed to dealing with stressful situations as adults are.
“This lack of coping skills can lead to an attempt to escape their troubling situations by means of a suicide attempt,” the book reads.
Suicides in jails and prisons have been rising across the country since the start of the millennium. According to a report published by the Department of Justice in 2015, 4,134 inmates in local jails died by suicide between 2000 and 2013, and it was the leading cause of death for inmates.
The second leading cause of death was heart disease, with 3,176 deaths.
Suicides in jails tend to occur by hanging, when the victims are being held in isolation or segregation cells, and during times when staffing is the lowest, such as nights or weekends, according to Tartaro’s book, “Suicide and Self-Harm in Prisons and Jails.”
Being held in isolation, called suicide watch, can be a lonely, embarrassing and stressful process that can sometimes further harm the inmate’s mental health, Tartaro said.
Inmates on suicide watch may be restrained to a chair in a single cell for hours at a time for several days. They are typically watched constantly or by 15-minute rotation and see a mental health professional every day.
There is no uniform policy on how jails and prisons deal with inmates who may be suicidal.
In Atlantic County, potentially suicidal inmates are treated on a case-by-case basis, Warden Geraldine Cohen said.
The cell for suicide watch in Atlantic County has a full glass door so corrections officers can watch the inmate. If an inmate tries to hurt himself in the cell, he may be put into an anti-suicide jacket, she said.
The jail also employs mental health professionals and has a suicide hotline number stenciled into the wall on every floor for inmates who may not feel like they can make it through the day, she said.
Tartaro, meanwhile, said she has advocated against certain suicide watch techniques around the country, arguing it could make the situation worse.
“Typically (inmates) lose the very few privileges they have left (when on suicide watch),” she said. “That’s not going to help improve their mood.”
John Zarych, a criminal defense attorney who practices in several South Jersey counties, said lawyers who have clients on suicide watch cannot make a unilateral decision to take the inmate off it.
“The attorney is not a mental health professional, and they can’t replace a medical determination,” he said. “The attorney can hire their own mental health professional (to do a review of the inmate), but that can cost thousands of dollars.”
Zarych added an inmate on suicide watch is a balancing act between the stresses of isolation and the stresses that were already making the inmate feel suicidal.
He said he has heard stories of prison inmates trying to drive others to suicide as a form of recreation. In one case, the inmates who drove someone to suicide cheered when the body was rolled out of the prison, he said.
“Removing (an inmate) who may be (suicidal) from the general population could ease the stresses that they are dealing with because they are no longer threatened,” Zarych said.
At the time of his death, Kauffman was in the maximum-security wing of the jail and not deemed a threat to complete suicide, though his physical state had been noticeably deteriorating while he was incarcerated. That wing is more secure than other parts of the jail, but it does not keep inmates more isolated than if they were in the minimum or medium security wings, Hudson County spokesman James Kennelly said.
Kauffman was automatically placed there because of the nature of the charges against him. While there, he worked in the kitchen occasionally and requested a job as the jail’s medical runner.
That morning, Kauffman’s roommate left the cell for a court hearing. Kauffman was dead before the roommate returned.
According to Cohen, Kauffman was temporarily placed in suicide watch in Atlantic County when he was brought there after his arrest in June.
Less than a week later, Kauffman was “upgraded” by a medical professional and placed on a 15-minute watch. One day after that, another medical professional recommended he be put in the general population, where he stayed until he was moved to Hudson County in January.
“If this wasn’t a high-profile case, you never would have realized he was there,” Cohen said.