Suicide among inmates in prisons and jails in the United States and abroad is a serious concern. The United States has lower rates of suicide in prison compared to Western European and Nordic countries However, compared to other nations, the United States has the highest prison population in the world and rates of suicide in detention are much higher than in the general population.
People with mental disabilities have long been over-represented in prisons and jails in America. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that people incarcerated at state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the non incarcerated population, and those in jails are more than four times as likely to report having a disability.
Suicide in Jails
Suicide is the leading cause of death among inmates in local jails in the United States. The number of suicide deaths increased in local jails by 13% from 2013 to 2014 from 328 deaths to 372 deaths. Between 2000 and 2014, jail authorities reported a total of 14,786 inmate deaths in local jails. Suicides accounted for 31% of jail inmate deaths during that period. From 2013 to 2014, the suicide rate increased 8% between to 50 suicides per 100,000 local jail inmates—the highest suicide rate observed in local jails since 2000. From 2000 to 2014, inmates served a median of 19 days prior to death. One third of inmates were being held for a violent offense prior to death and about a quarter were being held for a public order offense. More than a third of the deaths reported in local jails in 2014 occurred within the first 7 days of admission.
Suicide in Prisons
Between 2001 and 2014, there were a total of 50,785 prisoner deaths in state and federal prisons. The majority of prisoner deaths, or 45,640 deaths,occurred in state prisons. Between 2001 and 2014, the state prisoner average annual mortality rate was 256 per 100,000. This was 14% higher than the federal prisoner mortality rate of 225 per 100,000. The most common cause of death in state prisons in the United States is illness, which accounted for 87% of deaths in 2014.
Suicide in Immigration Detention Centers
Deaths in immigration detention centers are a growing concern. Unfortunately, this population of detainees is often overlooked. Eight people have died in U.S. immigration detention this year. Last fiscal year, 12 people died in US immigration detention centers, more than at any time since 2009.
Recommendations for decreasing suicide rates in jails and prisons centers include:
Ensure adequate staffing of prisons and jails, including adequate mental health staff
Ensure peer review of mental health staff including social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists
Improve medication management
Ensure adequate monitoring of detainees with mental health issues
Enforce restrictions on the use of solitary confinement and isolation
Increase monitoring and removal of nooses in detainee cells
There have been attempts to improve conditions in prisons and jails and provide more services, but they are grossly inadequate. Courts, such as in Coleman, have mandated remedies to improve conditions for people in detention and improve access to mental health care, but these policies are too often not implemented or enforced. Findings show a need for a more focused and enforceable approach to suicide prevention in prisons and jails across the United States so that detention is not a death sentence for anyone, particularly those with a mental disability.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.