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Jail and prison suicides increased by 39% over past 2 decades, federal data shows

Most suicides in jails were among those who had not been convicted of a crime.
Jail 09182020
(Getty Images)

After being arrested in connection with a road rage incident, family members of Dean Ray Stewart said police had documentation of his mental health issues and should have taken him somewhere where he could be treated, or monitored him more closely while he was in the Tarrant County Jail, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. 

“He didn’t have his medication,” Stewart’s brother, Kerry Stewart, told the Star-Telegram. “It wasn’t like he was a crazy person. When he was on his medication, you would never know. How could they, why would they have put someone in jail knowing that this was his situation?” 

Stewart, 50, died on April 26, 2020, in what was ruled a suicide by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

An investigation into Stewart’s death by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office revealed that officers were late making a routine observation check, causing the jail to lose its state certification for six days, the Star-Telegram reported. 

Stewart’s death is just one of thousands of suicides in local, state and federal jails and prisons over the past two decades — and the numbers continue to rise, according to a report released last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The BJS report also found that most suicides in local jails are committed by inmates who have not yet been convicted. In local jails, more than 6,200 people died by suicide from 2001 to 2019. 

Federal data on the number of suicides in local, state and federal correctional facilities in 2020 won’t be available until next year. But data collected by the Texas Justice Initiative suggests that at least 163 more people have died by suicide in Texas correctional facilities in 2020 and this year. Those numbers might be driven by the additional challenges prisoners have faced during the coronavirus pandemic, The Marshall Project reported. 

But even before the pandemic, suicides in local, state and federal correctional facilities climbed over the last two decades, federal data shows. 

The overall rise has been especially sharp in state prisons. There were 168 suicides in state prisons in 2001, compared to 311 in 2019 — an increase of 85%. Suicides rose by 61% in federal prisons and 13% in local jails.

A 2001 BJS bulletin said that 1,406,031 people were incarcerated in federal or state facilities at the end of the year. In 2019, there were 1,413,370 people incarcerated in federal or state facilities, a 2019 bulletin said.

When, where and why 

Suicide was the leading cause of death in jails from 2001 to 2018, accounting for about 30% of all deaths, according to an April BJS report. The mortality rate for suicide among jail inmates was more than twice that of non-incarcerated U.S. adults, the report said. 

“More than half of all suicides in local jails occurred in the first 30 days of incarceration, while the overwhelming majority of suicides in state and federal prisons took place after the prisoners had served more than a year of their sentence,” the BJS report said. 

The findings also show that inmates who had not been convicted of a crime accounted for 77% of deaths ruled as suicides in local jails. Two-thirds of suicides in local jails were committed within the first 30 days of a person’s incarceration, and 44% occurred within the first week, the report said.

Last week’s BJS report is part of a periodic review by federal officials of deaths that occur among incarcerated people. The report does not discuss reasons the suicides may have occurred, but a 2010 report on jail suicides from the U.S. Department of Justice pointed to two main theories: that “jail environments are conducive to suicidal behavior” and that suicides occur when “the inmate is facing a crisis situation.” 

The elevated rates of suicide and self harm in prisons and jails could be influenced by a wide range of different factors, “ranging from the characteristics of the population, to the experience of incarceration, to the common features of the environment,” according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice. 

The prevalence of suicide within jails might also be bolstered by factors that affected people before they were incarcerated, including serious mental health or substance abuse problems, according to the report. 

“These individual risk factors, combined with environmental risk factors, such as the stress of the correctional environment and the trauma of arrest, place detained people at a particularly high risk for suicide and self-harm,” the report said.

Those risk factors likely became even more severe during the COVID-19 pandemic, Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who studies deaths in custody, told The Marshall Project. 

“For the rest of the world, the pandemic has been stressful, and I think people in custody have had that but on steroids,” Deitch said.

Other findings in the report 

  • From 2001 to 2019, inmates who had been sentenced for a violent offense accounted for almost 72% of suicides in state prisons. 
  • From 2015 to 2019, nearly 76% of suicides in state prisons occurred within the person’s cell or room, 11% occurred in a segregation unit, and 4% occurred within a mental health or medical services unit. From 2001 to 2019, about 72.5% of suicides in local jails occurred in an inmate’s cell or room, 8.1% occurred in a segregation unit, and 3.2% occurred in a special medical unit/infirmary. 
  • California had the highest number of suicides in local jails from 2001 to 2019, with 615 deaths, followed by Texas with 448 and Florida with 333. 
  • California also had the highest number of suicides in state and federal prisons during that time period, with 596 deaths, followed by Texas with 527 deaths and New York with 247. 
  • People in prisons and jails who witness suicides or self-harming behavior are also at increased risk of long-term psychological repercussions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
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