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I am living in a society which considers autonomy over one's own death a basic human right. That means killing someone is very, very bad, no matter the circumstances. Our society is strictly against the death penalty, and also opposed to law enforcement using deadly force. But at the same time we believe that everyone should have the right to end their own life through suicide if they choose so.

I was tasked with designing a maximum security prison for the worst of the worst criminals of our society. Most are convicted to multiple life-long sentences. The human rights activists want to make sure that the inmates have the right to commit suicide. The politicians also agree: Keeping someone in prison is expensive, so the earlier they die, the better for the tax payer. But most inmates are very dangerous and inmate-on-inmate violence is unfortunately very common. How can I design a way for inmates to commit suicide which can not be abused?

  • The suicide method must be available to all prisoners. When a prisoner sincerely makes the decision to end their life, they must be able to do so within 24 hours.
  • Inmates must be unable to physically force another inmate to commit suicide (driving someone to suicide psychologically is something different, of course)
  • Inmates must be unable to use the suicide method to injure someone, use it to escape, smuggle contraband or compromise the security of the prison in any other way.
  • Prison personnel must not assist with the suicide, so just asking to be executed is out of the question (assisted suicide is only legally possible when a person is physically incapable to commit suicide due to a medical condition)
  • The guards are trained and equipped to subdue inmates with various non-lethal methods, so provoking a guard to shoot them won't work either.
  • If possible, the suicide method should be humane and painless.
  • I am on a budget, so nothing which is so elaborate that the cost would be prohibitive.

Tech level: present day.

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    $\begingroup$ Do inmates share cells? $\endgroup$ – Guran Aug 8 '16 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Guran yes, they do. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 8 '16 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ Doctor-assisted suicide is an established-practice in Europe. Doctor (or nurse) inserts IV into a vein, attaches it to machine that releases the lethal drugs upon press of a button. But the patient must press the button themselves to activate it. The doctor also verifies that patient is not forced, has taken the time to think it over, etc. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Mar 27 '18 at 13:15
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A suicide booth

It should be activated by a fingerprint/retina scan or something like that, after activation there would be a time to decide (few hours) to avoid forced activation/give some more time for the inmate to decide.

The person gets locked in, guards are notified to check if the activation was not forced, and then it gets filled with helium for painless suffocation.

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    $\begingroup$ I like that idea. It also has the advantage that the helium will dissipate when the door is opened so there is very little abuse potential. The worst thing that could happen is prisoners making helium balloons and use them to smuggle things out of the prison, but that could be fixed by using a heavier gas (carbon-monoxide perhaps?) and/or constructing the helium release mechanism in a way which makes it hard to collect the gas. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 8 '16 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Philipp using of carbon monoxide might not be ideal see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_monoxide_poisoning the painless asphyxiation requires the gas not to contain carbon (or not deposit it in blood ? ) as human body can detect it and causes the suffocation feeling inert gasses are a safe bet $\endgroup$ – Derte Trdelnik Aug 8 '16 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz use of heavier than air gas can create issues with leaks, creating death-pockets in low areas of prison, if someone would choose a heavier gas they should at least add some odour additive $\endgroup$ – Derte Trdelnik Aug 8 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Both helium and argon are needlessly expensive. Use nitrogen. The reason people use helium is that it has consumer use and so you can go buy a tank of it without questions. Argon is likewise a consumer product albeit more limited--for inert gas welding. I'm not aware of any consumer use of nitrogen, though. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Aug 8 '16 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @DerteTrdelnik Long-term solitary confinement is not healthy, but prisoners do not lack for privacy out of some health concern. Prisons do not have private rooms for prisoners to get away from it all and relax by themselves because the sheer expense of that extra space and something closer to 1:1 guard to prisoner ratio so they can monitor all prisoners being able to wander in and out of private spaces... ludicrous. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Dec 23 '16 at 16:11
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You don't have to design prisons to facilitate suicide. The suicide rate in prison is always extremely high. Prisons have to be designed to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. There are procedures to prevent prisoners committing suicide.

The answer is easy. Read the literature on how prisoners commit suicide and make sure the features and methods for suicide are readily available by the score. Make sure those features are such that prisoners can commit easily.

You don't need special facilities, gadgets or poisons, special rooms or whatever. Let prisoners keep their belts and shoe laces. Ensure there are lots of hooks and do-hickeys for attachments or clothes hooks or similar and they'll do the rest.

This is part and parcel of what happens in prisons in the real world. There's no need to fantasize about adding death dealing devices. Prisons are killing machines enough. They drive their inmates to self-destruction. If you want prisoners to suicide, just look the other way and they'll do the rest.

Most of the other answers seem to be written by people who haven't had to look into the abyss. This in some ways is your good fortune, but it robs you of the understanding of the terrible price even the loss of a single human being bring in its wake.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree that some of the other answers don't address the harsh reality of prison life. However, allowing a prisoner to have the tools to harm himself may mean he can harm other prisoners in the same manner. $\endgroup$ – Kys Aug 8 '16 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Kys I agree. Prisoners who suicide, use the fittings in their cells to kill themselves. These are hardly weapons to use against other prisoners. I have heard enough horrifying stories about improvised weapons made in prisons. Harm & self-harm are normal occurrences in prison. This is a ghoulish topic. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 9 '16 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ Though people do commit suicide in prisons, their methods are hardly what one could consider humane and painless. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Aug 9 '16 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi You're right, mate. I missed that bit in the OP's question. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 10 '16 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ The reason for the down-votes is because answer fails to take into account that the state is charged with maintaining the dignity and well-being of all its citizens, including those of the deplorables/undesirables, up to and including the last moments of their lives, and their deaths. Ending your life by means like those which you describe is painful; most likely to cause panic and regret at the last moment, which in turn may lead to anything from a horrifying death to a botched attempt that leaves them maimed. And there is nothing dignified by going out that way. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Mar 27 '18 at 13:47
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Maybe you shouldn't give that freedom to inmates.

Prison serves three purposes:

Rehabilitation. Let there be said that a prison that doesn't rehabilitate is a prison that does not work.

Imprisonment. For people who pose a threat to society, imprisonment serves to protect said society.

Punishment. Prison strips inmates of some of their freedoms and rights. Freedom of circulation, obviously. Depending on your jurisdiction, it could also include voting rights, freedom of speech, etc. In a country with euthanasia, then it may include the right to die.

If you give inmates the right to die, you give them the right to reduce their punishment, which defeats the core purpose of prison. You have to remember that they are in prison because they (were convicted of having) wronged society, i.e. there's probably someone out there who lost a loved one because of them. You should ask yourself if allowing suicide isn't giving them a "get out of jail free" card.


Now about how to make suicide happen regardless, keep it simple. You need a room and a pill. Inmate asks to go to the room, eats the pill, then dies. The inmate can back up at any time. You may add a psychiatrist in the loop for good measure, if you have the budget and personnel.

This fits the criteria of being a conscious decision, available to all, unable to hurt anyone else.

The weak link may be supply, particularly if pharmaceutical/chemical companies estimate it's inhumane. See how some US states reintroduced old death penalty method because they couldn't procure injections.

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  • $\begingroup$ I see a problem with people going to the room, stealing the pill, saying they changed their mind and use it to poison another inmate. The guards would of course notice that the pill is missing after the visit and not let the inmate leave. The inmate could then convince them that it wasn't there in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 8 '16 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ Not if there's exactly one pill in the room. The guards can check easily whether it's there or not before taking the inmate out. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 8 '16 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ There's four walls. There's a chair. There's a table. There are cameras. Medical equipment optional. There's nowhere to hide. If the pill can't be accounted for, then nobody leaves the room. Also, it doesn't say you have to leave them alone in the room. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 8 '16 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ A creative prisoner will already have made a shank out of a diner fork. You don't want guards to be pickpocketed? Don't give them pockets. You don't want an inmate to use their hands? Restrain them. You don't want them to hide something? Then don't look away until they're dead. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 8 '16 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ Then don't use a pill. Use a big plastic mug (hard to counterfeit and wimpy as a weapon), full of a tasty, painless poison that only works if you drink the full 20 ounces. Even if he splashes the guard with it, the guard won't swallow a lethal dose. $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Jul 13 '17 at 20:02
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What about just having a room with a pistol in it? When a prisoner asks to commit suicide the guards will escort them to that room and come in to remove the body after he's dead.

If it's a problem that the prisoner may steal the pistol, assault the guards and go on a killing spree with it you can fix the gun to the wall with a remote trigger.

The prisoner stands in front of it and presses the button. There can be a glass window (not in front of the gun) for the guards to check if the prisoner really killed themselves or just faked it by shooting without standing in front of it.

If the prisoner didn't commit suicide correctly and just got a heavy wound, the guards can enter and shoot him (the prisoner is incapacitated in his ability of killing himself by the previous shot and they clearly stated their intent of killing themselves earlier).

Neither option should be particularly costly. The biggest expense probably is the extra room but that can be offset by using a rarely-used room and designing the window into it (if the original room didn't already have one). Firearms should not be a problem, if these are so rare because everyone uses non-lethal methods replace firearm with a dart gun that uses deadly venom instead of something that merely knocks out the victim.

A sightly more costly option would be a fixed station the arm is held into. After the arm has been inserted the station will inject the venom. This also removes the problem of accidental non-suicides.

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    $\begingroup$ Gunshots can be excruciatingly painful, with a relatively high probability of failure (or a prolonged lingering death). And of course this would be a rather messy thing to clean up after. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Aug 9 '16 at 13:17
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Just have an air chamber available that will not close with more than one person inside. Have a computer terminal, that only operates with the door closed, that will release nitrogen when the prisoner types out a randomly generated phrase on the keyboard. (A second measure to prevent murder and also serve as a indication of intent by the prisoner.) Patient lies down on a mat or bed and dies.

No idea what the cost of gas vs. lethal amount would be. I suppose you could cheap out and make the air chamber a hyperbolic chamber... but it might be less humane with the ear pressure, increased temperature etc.

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Attach something with a poison in it to a part of the inmates body. On a voice command, it can open it and the poison will flow. With voice recognition, that should avoid being able to cheat the system and kill someone.

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  • $\begingroup$ Voice recognition is far from perfect. In fact, biometrics in general are far from perfect; the false positive as well as false negative rates are considerable. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 8 '16 at 18:00
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Low-tech: one deep elevator shaft and an openable door onto it. No mechanics or poisons to go wrong. And you probably needed an elevator anyway, so the extra costs are low.

This has the advantage that there is no weapon or other contraband to steal. (If you're not concerned about prisoners keeping their belts or other rope-like items, use this answer instead -- prisoners in our world use it already so we know it works, and you don't have to build anything special.)

Access to the jump site needs to be controlled; it must not be possible for a prisoner to push someone else off. So, most of the time, this space is the resting location of the elevator. When a prisoner wants to use his suicide option, a guard escorts him through the locked-and-alarmed door guarding the site, uses his key to send the elevator up and then disables it, and waits. When the prisoner has either jumped or decided not to, the guard returns the elevator to service, locks the door behind him, and resets the alarm.

The purpose of the alarm is to alert guards if, somehow, a prisoner manages to gain access to the door with intent to push someone else. Even if a prisoner reaches the elevator, he'll need a key to deactivate the elevator. And he'll only have a short time to improvise, because guards are responding to the alarm.

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Assume that in this society that some of the keys to total body control have been mastered and the knowledge is no longer solely in the hands of mystic monks in Shambala or whatever. We know yogis and martial artists can do some extreme stuff with their bodies.

Hypnotically implant a mental routine that controls breathing and panic responses. this hypnotic routine is subliminal, so that the panic control that would create super soldiers is not easy to access by the prisoner. The breathing routine doesn't just slow, but actively stops breathing altogether. With the panic response muted, this becomes about as humane a way to go as possible.

Now, give each prisoner a randomly generated nonsense phrase or other triggering mechanism, unique to each prisoner, that triggers these 2 routines at the same time. This way, each suicide cannot be forced by another person, does not not leave messy residue, other than the corpse, and does not require additional resources, rooms, or other stuff that can be abused. It does not require a guards interaction, and would be available to even a quadriplegic.

Since this method is hard to circumvent and be abused, you can create a really fun villian, because they'd have to be very clever, and clever villians are the most fun :)

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