August 12, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide prevents his accusers from seeing him face his charges. It also points to the leading cause of death in jails. Journalists are starting to focus on jail suicides not just because of the human toll but because jails are facing lawsuits over jail deaths that families say should be prevented. People in jail are seven times more likely to take their own lives than those housed in prisons. Some experts theorize that the “shock of confinement” contributes to the desperation behind jail suicides. Epstein was housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federally run detention center that houses the accused who are awaiting trial and that has been criticized for human rights violations.

The highest suicide rates occur in small jails, according to a Department of Justice report. In jails holding 50 or fewer inmates, the suicide rate was 167 per 100,000; in the largest jails, the suicide rate was 27 per 100,000 inmates, the DOJ said.

(From DOJ/Bureau of justice Statistics)

Even though prisons hold many times more men and women than local jails, more people take their own lives in jails. In prison, illness is the leading cause of death, while suicide is the leading cause of death in jails and has been for more than a decade, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A 13-year study showed jail suicides to be increasing steadily after a brief drop a decade ago.

A joint investigation by the Associated Press and the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service found:

“Suicide, long the leading cause of death in U.S. jails, hit a high of 50 deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014, the latest year for which the government has released data. That’s 2.5 times the rate of suicides in state prisons and more than three times the suicide rate in the general population.”

The problem stems partly from the increasing number of mentally ill people sent to jail. As deaths increased, more than 150 lawsuits have been filed against local jails accusing them of failing to monitor at-risk prisoners. Of 165 jail suicides the investigation examined, reporters found 80 percent of the prisoners had not yet gone to trial. The investigation also uncovered:

  • About a third of jail inmates who attempted suicide or took their lives did so after staff allegedly failed to provide prescription medicines used to manage mental illness. Some jail officials say withholding medications for a short period isn’t harmful and that some inmates try to manipulate the system to get drugs. David Mahoney, a Wisconsin sheriff, disagrees. If inmates are taking psychotropic drugs, he says, “We have a moral and ethical responsibility to continue them.”
  • The first week of an inmate’s detention is critical. In the jail 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 when inmates worry about losing jobs, family reaction and an uncertain future.
  • Inmates frequently used clothing, bedsheets or shower curtains to hang themselves. The review also revealed instances of inmates being given razors, despite clear warnings they might harm themselves.
  • Many inmates weren’t checked regularly — usually every 15-30 minutes — because of staffing shortages or inadequate training.

The U.S. Department of Justice does provide some data about suicides in jail, although the data is often years old. A 2010 study found:

  • 42%  were single.
  • 43% were held on a personal and/or violent charge.
  • 47% had a history of substance abuse.
  • 28% had a history of medical problems.
  • 38% had a history of mental illness.
  • 20% had a history of taking psychotropic medication.
  • 34% had a history of suicidal behavior.
  • Deaths were evenly distributed throughout the year; certain seasons and/or holidays did not account for more suicides.
  • 32% occurred between 3:01 p.m. and 9 p.m.
  • 23 % occurred within the first 24 hours, 27% between two and 14 days, and 20% between one and four months.
  • 20% of the victims were intoxicated at the time of death.
  • 93% of the victims used hanging as the method.
  • 66% of the victims used bedding as the instrument.
  • 30% of the victims used a bed or bunk as the anchoring device.
  • 38% of the victims were held in isolation.
  • 8% of the victims were on suicide watch at the time of death.

Most of the victims were white males with an average age of 35. Two thirds of the jails the DOJ study looked at did not provide regular suicide prevention training to staff. Ninety-three percent of the jails “provided a protocol for suicide watch, but less than 2 percent had the option for constant observation; most (87 percent) used 15-minute observation periods.”

The DOJ also found there were common factors in the more than 400 suicides included in its study. The DOJ said, “that two primary causes for jail suicide exist: (1) jail environments are conducive to suicidal behavior and (2) the inmate is facing a crisis situation. From the inmate’s perspective, certain features of the jail environment enhance suicidal behavior: fear of the unknown, distrust of an authoritarian environment, perceived lack of control over the future, isolation from family and significant others, shame of incarceration, and perceived dehumanizing aspects of incarceration.”

The World Health Organization put it this way: “A period of risk for pre-trial inmates is near the time of a court appearance, especially when a guilty verdict and harsh sentencing may be anticipated. A great deal of all jail suicides occurred within three days of a court appearance.”

On Friday, one day before Epstein was found dead, a court unsealed hundreds of pages of documents that revealed new evidence against Epstein and others. The Miami Herald, which has been at the forefront of the Epstein story, reported: “The documents, the largest cache to be released in the 13 years since Epstein’s case began, offer brutal details about Epstein’s trafficking of teenage girls in Palm Beach, New York and overseas …”

Free newsroom training

The Poynter Institute, The Vera Institute, the Marshall Project and The MacArthur Foundation have, for two years, worked together to train hundreds of journalists how to aggressively cover local jails. I have led the workshops in seven cities already, and we will hold another in Phoenix soon (registration is closed.) In 2020 we will take the workshops to Minneapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; Las Vegas and we are working out details for a fourth stop. The dates and enrollment will be open soon on the Poynter website.

Jails and prisons in America offer scant treatment for people with addictions. As part of our Covering Jails project, we offer a free webinar on NewsU taught by Dr. Lipi Roy, a board certified addiction specialist who worked at one of America’s biggest jails, Rikers Island.

Journalists covering jail suicides

Some of our participants have produced work that has changed the way jails monitor at-risk prisoners. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s KUOW produced an investigation, “Booked and Buried,” that found 306 people died in the last 10 years after being sent to local jails. Half of the deaths involved suicide and 70 percent of the deaths involved people who, like Epstein, were not yet convicted of a crime.  The “vast majority” of the deaths occurred within the first two weeks of the person being sent to jail.

The KUOW journalists had to go county by county to gather the data because the state didn’t collect it.  The reporting changed state law and now the state does require counties to turn over the jail death data along with information about prisoner physical health and mental health.

Gari Harki, a reporter for the Virginian Pilot, has taught in some of our Covering Jails workshops after he reported on the unfolding crisis of mental illness and deaths in Virginia jails. Harki compiled a list of more than 404 people with mental illness who died in America’s jails since 2010. The newspaper built an interactive graphic of all of the deaths for readers to explore. The investigation found only eight out of 50 states could supply data about inmates who died and had some mental illness. (Texas, Utah, Montana, Indiana, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont all supplied data.) With so little data, the 404 deaths that the project did uncover are certain to be a fraction of the real number.

Anjeanette Damon is one of the journalists behind the Reno Gazette’s “Death Behind Bars” investigation, and she also taught with us in a Covering Jails workshop. Her yearlong, award-winning investigation found the Washoe County, Nevada, jail had experienced a jail death rate that was five times the national average. Damon said the investigation began with a request to see 10 years worth of data on local jail deaths. She spoke with families of some of the people who died in jail. The paper went to court to get video of one of the deaths in question. Anjeanette reported, “At some point suicide prevention stopped due to staffing reductions.” After the Reno Gazette started asking questions, the county started the training again, but an independent audit called it “woefully inadequate.” County commissioners reacted to the coverage by requesting monthly reports from the sheriff who ran the jail and the county immediately began looking for a new contractor to oversee health issues in the jail.

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