Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why Are Inmates Dying?

In yesterday's New York Times there was a story by Erin Banco called Suicides Worry Experts at Big Jail in Capital. The story talks about four deaths at the DC jail this year and the general worrying trend of increasing correctional suicides nationally. The article speculates that the deaths may be attributed to lack of adequate mental health staffing or deficiencies in the jails' observation practices. Some of the people interviewed for the story linked the deaths to cutbacks in state mental health budgets.

Correctional suicide is an area that, as Dinah would put it, is a "Clink" thing---a topic I've been interested in for a number of years. I wrote about this three years ago in an article called Correctional Suicide: Has Progress Ended? In my article I pointed out that nationally we seemed to have hit a "floor" with regard to suicide prevention---rates had been declining consistently over the years until a recent plateau. I wrote about what I thought might be the cause of that plateau: the Prison Litigation Reform Act which limited prisoner access to the courts and circumscribed how far courts could intervene to improve prison and jail conditions,  as well as changes in the profile of the typical correctional suicide, and the increasing problem of gang violence and intimidation in corrections.

What was most striking for me then was the fact that correctional suicide studies are starting to show increasing numbers of inmates who die from suicide without any previous mental health history or history of suicide attempts. I coined the term for this phenomenon a "clean" suicide---one that could not have been picked up or prevented through currently accepted screening methods and referral protocols. The New York Times article didn't address this, but I couldn't help wondering if the deaths in the DC jail might fall into this category.

What I didn't mention in my earlier paper---because the numbers weren't out yet---was that the increase in jail and prison deaths may reflect a larger trend in rising national suicides. According to the CDC, the age-adjusted death rate for suicide has increased by 8.7 percent since 2000. The other new data comes from the recent Department of Justice report on inmate sexual victimization and abuse. According to this national survey, being a sex offender increases the by other inmates. The Washington Post has reported that three of the four DC jail deaths were by detainees who were charged with sex offenses.

The Times may be correct that cutbacks in state mental health budgets have had an effect, but this does not address the fact that for many states the funding for correctional health care comes out of the public safety budget rather than the health and mental hygiene budget. State cutbacks could still play a role, just not through the route the article suggests. States with privitized correctional health budgets would also have to be examined separately to look for contractual budget changes.

So those are my thoughts about the NYT correctional suicide story. I figured I'd better get this post up fast before Dinah nudges me to write about it. (Yeah I know, I'm supposed to be re-reading the book proposal but Dinah you know I had to blog about this.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


When one inmate commits suicide, do you then see more attempts by other inmates? I've heard about cluster suicides among adolescents, so I was just curious if you see the same thing in prison?