Suicide in Local Jails Preventable Yet Far Too Common


Suicide is Leading Cause of Death in Local JailsSuicide is the leading cause of death in local jails.  Suicide surpasses drug and alcohol, accidental and homicide related deaths combined.

A study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics studying jail and prison deaths from 2000 to 2011 found that suicide for 25 to 35 percent of local jail deaths.  In 2011, suicide accounted for 35% of local jail deaths.

The rate of suicide in local jails is far too high.  The risks and warning signs are readily identifiable. As such, suicide in local jails is largely preventable yet the high rates persist.

High Rates of Suicide in Local Jails Raises Many Questions

Jail suicide is predictable and largely preventable.  Negligence alone explains the continuing high rates in local jails. 

The high rate of suicides in local jails raises numerous issues.  The most immediate question is why the suicide rate would be so high.

The high rate of suicide reflects a number of risks factors associated with jail populations.  More importantly, it often reflects a lack of preventative measures at many local jails.

The risks, the warning signs and preventative measures are well-established.  Jail suicide is predictable and largely preventable yet the problem persists.

Risk Factors for Jail Suicide

There are well established and known risk factors for jail suicide.

A report from the U.S. Marshalls Service on suicide prevention in jails addresses many issues related to suicides in local jails including the risk factors. The report breaks down the various risks in a fairly detailed fashion.

Broadly, the inmates most at risk are those in the first week of detention, pre-trial inmates, inmates suffering from mental illness, inmates housed alone in a cell and sex offender inmates.

Vulnerable Population in Local Jails

Local jails present the perfect storm of risk factors for jail suicide.

The U.S. Marshalls Report points out that jails house a population vulnerable to suicide.  There are numerous factors related to suicidal tendencies such as age, sex, previous attempts, intoxication, lack of social support, lack of family support and illness.

Notably, jails house a high number of young men, which hits two of the high-risk categories of youth and male.  Jails also have a very high rate of inmates with alcohol and substance abuse issues.

In short, jails’ environments reflect a perfect storm of risk factors that lead to the high rate of suicide.  Knowing this, one might assume that jails would take action to do everything possible to prevent jail suicide.  To the contrary, many fail to take even minimal efforts.

Many Local Jails Provide Little or No Suicide Prevention Training

Many jails have little or no training, many more have no written policies.

Despite the high risk of suicide in local jails, which plays out in actual jail suicides, the U.S. Marshall’s Report suggested that many jails do little in the way of suicide prevention.

The report suggested that many provide no annual training or worse yet, provide no training at all on suicide prevention.

Though many jails have suicide prevention policies, they typically have many shortcomings.  For instance, the policies are not comprehensive.

To make matters worse, many jails have no written policies.  A lack of written policies reflects a lack of seriousness about the problem.  Moreover, it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to implement an effective suicide prevention policy in the absence of a written policy.

Local Jails Have Legal Duty to Prevent Suicide

Inmates have many rights under the 8th and 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. 

The numbers are clear on the risk and the reality of jail suicide.  Local jails have a duty to protect against jail suicide.  This means implementing policies and adhering to those policies for suicide prevention.

In the absence of policies and procedures, the jails could be facing legal liability for the death of an inmate.  The liability arises under the 8th and 14th Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act §1983.  There will also be claims under New Mexico state law.

If a loved one has died as a result of suicide while in custody, it is important to have the case reviewed as soon as possible.  The deadlines are shorter on claims against governmental entities such as local jails.

The statute of limitations on civil rights claims is only 2 years.  For state law claims, there is a 90-day deadline on sending a Tort Claims Notice.   It is very important not to miss these deadlines.

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