The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Sandra Bland have raised questions about deaths of people in jail. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, three out of four of those who die while in custody in local jails have not even been convicted of a crime.
This has been the average since 2000, when the number was at 70.9 percent. It fluctuated throughout the 70 percent range and was pegged at 73.2 in 2012.
More than half of jail deaths occur within the first month of being arrested, with the majority 36.5 percent within the first week, and 21.0 percent within 8-30 days.
In 2012, 31.3 percent of these jail deaths were labeled as suicides. While illness overall tops this at 55.2 percent, suicide is number one when looking at illnesses broken down in specific categories (heart disease comes second to suicide at 28.2). For every 100,000 people in jail, 40 committed suicide double the rate of those in prison and triple the rate of the general population.
Why are there so many suicides, and why do they occur so quickly prior to anyone even being convicted, in most cases According to Steve J. Martin, corrections expert and consultant, going to jail can have a severely traumatic effect on some people, especially those without prior run-ins with the law. Martin describes this as “shock of confinement.” He explains, “It overtakes your being in the sense that normalcy is gone.”
A U.S. Marshal report provides further insight into this unsettling information. The report indicates four factors that make jail environments conducive to suicide:
Jail environments diminish personal control.
Jails separate inmates from social support networks.
Jails provide isolation/privacy.
Jails may not have mental health resources.
According to Alexandra Fleischmann, an expert in suicide prevention at the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, this is even more problematic because of the unpredictable nature of suicide even for the general population: “[Suicide] is difficult to predict. So the only way to intervene is to address as many risk factors as possible,” she explains. “These factors are typically mental distress, chronic illness, acute emotional distress, or the loss of a loved one.”
The “shock of confinement” described by Martin could very likely fall under “mental distress” or “acute emotional distress” making jail inmates high-risk candidates for suicide.
However, identifying risk factors is easier said than done. The U.S. Marshal analysis says that most jails still have no suicide prevention training despite the fact that jail inmates are three times more likely to commit suicide in jail.
Lindsay Hayes, who works with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives and focuses heavily on suicides, says that conditions have improved from what they were 20 years ago.
“If you went into Waller County jail 20 years ago,” he says, “they wouldn’t have any intake screening. They might ask about ‘Do you have any medical issues right now’ and that would be about it. They never would have asked any questions about suicide or mental illness and such.”
Despite the progress made, though, much remains to be done. And the questionnaire has not proven to be effective enough. Sandra Bland, for instance, responded that she had once considered suicide. Despite saying that she was not feeling suicidal at the time of her arrest, this should have classified her as a high-risk inmate.
“Simply because someone answers ‘No’ [on their questionnaire] right now doesn’t mean in the next five minutes, if they don’t get through to their loved one or if their loved one doesn’t come out and bail them out, that answer might change,” Hayes says. “And if you ask me that again 15 minutes after my phone call, I might become suicidal.”