There’s an epidemic of prison suicides. Should we care?

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 trau­maticHuff­ing­ton 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.

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