Long the leading cause of death in U.S. jails, suicides hit a high of 50 deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014, the latest year for which the data are available.
That’s 2½ times the rate of suicides in state prisons and about 3½ times that of the general population, report the Associated Press and the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.
More mentally ill people are landing behind bars, a trend that started after state psychiatric hospitals began closing in the 1970s and alternatives failed to emerge. More recently, jails have been overwhelmed with opioid or meth addicts, many of whom wrestle with depression and withdrawal.
That has raised troubling questions about the treatment of inmates in many jails, possible patterns of neglect, and whether better care could have stopped suicides.
Scores of jails have been sued or investigated for refusing inmates medication, ignoring cries for help, failing to monitor them despite warnings they might harm themselves, or imposing such harsh conditions that the sick got sicker.
Reporters found more than 400 lawsuits filed in the last five years over alleged mistreatment of inmates, most of whom were mentally ill. About a third of jail inmates who attempted suicide or took their lives did so after staff allegedly failed to provide medicines used to manage mental illness.
The first week of someone’s detention is critical. In cases cited in lawsuits, more than half of suicides or attempts occurred during the first seven days, and many of those were within the first 48 hours after intake.
Those early days are marked by the sudden stress of confinement. Many inmates weren’t checked regularly — usually every 15-30 minutes — because of staffing shortages or inadequate training. An effort to collect recent data found 300 suicides in local jails in just nine states from 2015 to 2017.
Reports suggest that rural jails have been hit particularly hard.
“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I don’t ever remember the number of people with mental health issues being as dramatic, or significant, as large as it is right now,” Captain Rob Bellamy, head of corrections in Nebraska’s Washington County told the Fremont Tribune last year.
A 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 64 percent of inmates in local jails across the country had some sort of mental health problem. The Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 16 percent of inmates in jails and prisons have a severe mental health illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Additional reading: Many Jail Deaths Due to Mental Illness, Preventable