I had some exposure to the phenomenon several years ago in my reporting on Steven Hayne, the controversial medical examiner who did 80 to 90 percent of Mississippi’s autopsies for the better part of 20 years. Back in the early 1990s, there was some building media coverage of black people found hanging in jail cells across the state (indeed, across the entire country). Hayne determined that these were suicides. The problem is that Hayne even then had a reputation for pleasing local authorities, so many didn’t find his diagnosis trustworthy. Lloyd White, who at the time was the state’s official medical examiner, was so troubled that he wrote a public letter to the editor of the African American newspaper in Jackson. When I interviewed him in 2006, he said he subsequently reviewed some of the cases for the families of some of the deceased. He determined that they were, in fact, suicides. But he also understood why the families and activists had a hard time believing that.
As it turned out, the total population of people who were committing suicide in jails at that time wasn’t predominantly African American. It was actually disproportionately white. The race angle was largely the result of media outlets looking for and highlighting those cases. And though disturbingly common, the rate of jail suicides wasn’t out of range for the era. Still, it’s understandable why, like the family of Sandra Bland, activists and families were so skeptical. Sending the bodies to someone with Hayne’s reputation sent up red flags. And some of these suicides were by people who had been jailed for relatively minor offenses. It just didn’t seem plausible.
And it happened — and it still does. Last October, a Hanceville, Ala., man committed suicide in his cell after he was jailed for failure to appear in court for a traffic ticket. In 2013, a Jennings, Mo., man killed himself while jailed on similar charges. Both NPR and the Atlantic reported last year that there have been other attempted suicides in St. Louis County jails by people locked up for little more than owing money to a local municipality.
The odd thing is, once it’s determined that these deaths were suicides and not lynchings or homicides, they seem to fade from the public interest. Perhaps suicide just isn’t as interesting. But it ought to bother us. People jailed for a short period of time over a minor offense shouldn’t become so despondent that they take their own lives. (For that matter, we shouldn’t be comfortable with people jailed for more serious crimes taking their lives, either.)
I looked at several studies on jail suicides, then interviewed Lindsay M. Hayes, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives and an expert on incarceration and mental illness, to offer some perspective on the numbers. Unfortunately, the most recent data we have is from 2011. But here’s what we know:
- The rate of jail suicides as of 2011 was 43 per 100,000. That’s about three-and-a-half times the rate of the general population.
- The good news is that this figure is significantly lower than it was in the mid-1980s. In 1986, it was at 107.
- The bad news is that it’s up 18 percent since 2009, although that’s based only on two years of data.
“We’ve made significant progress,” Hayes said. “The rate is still too high, but this problem is nowhere near where it once was.” Hayes says the slight increase since 2011 is concerning, but it’s too early to tell if it’s a real trend or just a blip in the data.
- The rate of jail suicides is about three times the rate of prison suicides. This seems surprising, given that people in jails are generally facing less serious charges, and less time incarcerated.
- In the mid-1980s, 3 out of four people who committed suicide in jail were facing nonviolent charges. That dropped to about 56 percent in 2006.
- Still, according to most recent data, about a fifth of people who kill themselves in jail are facing what the Bureau of Justice Statistics calls “minor charges.”
This is the most puzzling group of people who kill themselves in jail — those facing minor charges, and with no history of mental illness. Hayes first says that this can be misleading. “Someone who seemingly has no mental illness may still have mental illness. It may just not yet have manifested in obvious ways, or it may be undiagnosed.”
But Hayes adds that even without mental illness, someone can be driven to suicide. The mere trauma of sitting in a jail cell can be overwhelming, and this is particularly true for someone who has never been in one before. And that could explain the suicides by people who aren’t facing serious charges.
“That it was an arrest for a minor crime may not matter. In fact a sense of injustice can only add to the emotional damage. Someone may be sitting in a cell for longer than they were supposed to be. So the walls start closing in. There’s the uncertainty, of not knowing when you’re going to get out. There’s the loss of control. You’re cut off from family and friends. And it’s all beyond your control. That can be really difficult, especially for someone who hasn’t experienced it before.”
- Men are much more likely to kill themselves in jail than women.
- White people are more than three times more likely to kill themselves than black people.
“The race factor is a peculiar one,” Hayes says. “But it’s consistent across a number of studies. The prevailing theory is that, unfortunately, minorities are overrepresented in jails and prisons. So there can more of a sense of kinship and community there. They’re more likely to feel safer in a jail than a white inmate.”
- Another surprising statistic: There seems to be little difference in suicide rates between isolated inmates and inmates in cells with other inmates.
But Hayes urges caution on this point. “I think this is a problem of how you define isolation,” Hayes says. “There’s a strong relationship between suicide and segregation.” He points to prison studies showing that relationship and notes that what counts as “isolated” can vary from jail to jail. A prisoner in a cell by himself, but positioned where he can interact with staff and other inmates, may be reported as isolated, but that’s much different from a prisoner who is cut off from all other contact with other people.
Hayes says better intake screening, better monitoring and better access to mental health officials are the chief reasons for the improvement in jail suicide figures from the early 1980s. But he says there’s still room for improvement.
“There are certainly going to be cases in which a suicide is a complete mystery, where there were no risks present,” he says. “But most of the time, these suicides could have been prevented. If you peel back the onion, you usually find that there was unmentioned information that should have been discovered.”
He also cautions that inmates who are deemed suicide risks can be treated punitively. Guards and jail personnel might see them as a burden. They’re then isolated, cut off from recreation, given only “finger foods” and treated more harshly than other inmates. Some of those measures may protect them from hurting themselves in the short run, but it can cause damage once they’re taken off suicide watch. “It may be better for the immediate physical health, but it can make them emotionally despondent. Some will then deny they’re suicidal to be treated like the other inmates, but then the underlying problems haven’t been addressed.”
“We just need better intake training, and better access to mental health officials,” Hayes says.
There have also been too many stories in recent years of deaths in custody because guards and jail personnel ignored inmate pleas about physical health ailments such as food allergies, asthma or other conditions. And then, of course, there are the deaths directly due to abuse from guards and jail deputies. All of which suggests that part of the problem may just be that some jail personnel need to be taught to see inmates not just as inmates, but also as human beings.