There is an epidemic of suicides among incarcerated people in this country, as the good folks at the Brennan Center note in a current article:
Why are people in jail taking their lives so often? A 2020 Reuters investigation corroborates the Justice Department’s finding that suicides are a top cause of jail deaths and suggests three primary drivers.
First, a significant proportion of people who land in jail are from marginalized communities and grapple with symptoms of poverty, primarily substance abuse and mental illness, as well as unemployment and homelessness. According to the latest Justice Department data, 63 percent of people in jail experienced drug dependence or abuse, and 44 percent of people in jail reported having had symptoms of a mental health disorder in the prior year.
Second, the prevalence of detained people with serious mental health needs is at odds with the goals, design, operation, and resources in most jails. The near absence of mental health treatment or other types of behavioral health services is exacerbated by jail staff who are often not trained or equipped to prevent, detect, or respond to behavioral health crises. For example, only about one-quarter of New York City corrections staff reported completing suicide prevention training despite a surge in self-harm and suicides at Rikers. A recent investigation of Indiana jails, citing staff shortages with training or expertise, similarly found that many suicide attempts occur openly, including among people on suicide watch or those being monitored by video.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that according to the latest available data, the majority of people in jail with mental illness — 62 percent — were not receiving mental health care. Yet jails are often described as “de facto mental hospitals” because they have filled the vacuum created by a pervasive lack of adequate behavioral health services in the community and because behavioral health issues underlie many of the circumstances that land someone in jail.
Third, the conditions inside most jails are terrible and the treatment often abusive, making them unlikely to offer any respite for people experiencing crises or mental illness. Jails are typically characterized by loud and unpredictable noise, bright lights, unsanitary conditions, and in many places, an atmosphere of threat and violence.
Confronting an intrinsically isolating experience in an institution whose aim is to punish rather than treat or rehabilitate can also be traumatic. A Huffington Post investigation following Sandra Bland’s in-custody death quoted corrections expert Steve J. Martin, who described jail as “a total and absolute loss — immediate loss — of control over your being, over your physical being.”
Put together, it is understandable that jail may in fact exacerbate a person’s mental illness, and quickly. Indeed, according to the Justice Department, most jail suicides happen soon after admission, with nearly half of suicides occurring within seven days of arrival. A significant proportion of jail suicides — 77 percent — occur by detained people who are charged but not convicted of any crime and are therefore legally presumed innocent.
It’s probably safe to say that if you asked average Americans whether jails and prisons should be more about rehabilitation or punishment, most of them would say punishment. After all, if we make jails and prisons as legally unbearable as is possible – which is basically what we have now – criminals would be more likely when they get out of prison to lead lives that will not lead them back to incarceration.
But that is not what is happening. People who go into prison as the damaged human beings many of them are, are subjected to conditions in most prisons and jails which guarantee that they will come out more damaged than when they went in. Often profoundly more damaged.
Socially and physically damaged inmates, especially the ones with mental health issues, do not come out of the experience ready to start lives as earnest, tax-paying citizens.
Many of them come out with even greater mental health challenges that virtually ensure they will be so broken that getting their lives in order is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.
Assuming they live long enough to make it out of incarceration in the first place.
This is not soft-headed liberal whining. It’s plain fact there for anyone willing to look honestly at recidivism rates.
A genuine interest in lessening crime has to be accompanied by the conviction that the money we spend now on providing meaningful mental health treatments, along with job training and socialization programs, will save us even greater costs later on repeat incarceration, and increased crimes against persons and property stemming from the prison-to-prison pipeline we now have.