With suicide rates remaining high in the United States’ prison system, civil advocates are raising concerns regarding the treatment of inmates.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in prison. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice, 372 suicides occurred in 3,000 federal prisons in 2014. This number is 2.5 times higher than suicide rates in state prisons and 3.5 times higher than in general society.
The Associated Press conducted a recent investigation into suicide rates in prisons, finding that more than 300 suicides occurred in local prisons throughout nine states from 2015 to 2017.
Many lawsuits regarding prison mistreatment have to do with self-immolation and attempted suicide, according to the AP. Out of 400 lawsuits in the last five years, 40% involved an attempt of suicide.
As jails seek to curb prison drug abuse, inmates often lack access to medication for their pre-existing mental health conditions, the AP reported. About one-third of prison suicides occur after the prisoner requested prescription medication and was denied, it found.
According to the AP, prison experts believe these deaths are largely avoidable by either providing inmates with better suicide prevention or ensuring offenders are placed in psychiatric hospitals rather than prisons.
“The vast majority are foreseeable and preventable,” said Lori Rifkin, a prisoners’ rights attorney in California. “But they continue to happen because, overall, I think there is a cultural dismissiveness toward both the signs that help us predict suicide - and toward the steps necessary to prevent them.”
“We have decided that as a society let’s just warehouse the mentally ill in a jail ... which is neither equipped for, trained to handle or able to be most efficient and effective at solving the problem,” said Jonathan Thompson, head of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
“The failure here isn’t just what a deputy or an officer in a jail does or doesn’t do. The failure is that these people are being put in a criminal environment for mental illness.”
Some states have initiated suicide prevention and mental health awareness programs, including the Sandra Bland Act passed in Texas in 2017. The law requires law enforcement to undergo mental health training.
Numerous county jails have also stepped up suicide prevention methods. In Lake Country, California, the jail installed a better surveillance system to monitor at-risk prisoners. It also added a registered nurse and four additional hours of suicide prevention training. In Harris County, Texas, a suicide hotline has been made available to the inmates.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has expressed significant concern for the proper treatment of prisoners. On Holy Thursday this year, the Pope celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper with the prisoners in Velletri, about 30 miles from Rome.
In February, he challenged prison personnel to promote hope among inmates. He said prisons need to be humanized, preventing offenses against the human person, and inmates need to be treated with love.
“I have much closeness with prisoners and the people that work in prisons,” he said. “[I give] my affection and my prayer, so that you can contribute with your work to making the prison, a place of pain and suffering, also a workshop of humanity and hope,” he said.
“This attitude of closeness, which finds its root in the love of Christ, can foster in many prisoners the trust, the awareness, and the certainty of being loved.”