Inmate suicides leading cause of death in nation’s jails since 2000

In the nation's local jails in 2013, a third of all inmate deaths were by suicide, and the suicide rate was 46 per 100,000 inmates


By Andy Matarrese
The Columbian

Since 2007, 16 inmates have killed themselves at the Clark County Jail, leaving Clark County with more in-custody suicides than any jail in the state during that time.

In King County, where the average daily population for the jail system in 2015 was roughly 2,000, there were 11 suicides from 2005 to 2015.

A corrections officer monitors security video feeds at the Clark County Jail. (Photo/Clark County Sheriff's Office)
A corrections officer monitors security video feeds at the Clark County Jail. (Photo/Clark County Sheriff's Office)

The Clark County Jail, where the average daily population was about 735 last year, saw its worst year for suicides in recent decades in 2012, when four inmates died. Despite changes at the jail made in the wake of those deaths, this year has seen three inmate suicides so far.

"It's not just the person dying, it's the impact on the family, it's the impact on the staff," Clark County Jail Chief Ric Bishop said.

While Clark County stands out among the state's jails, even among larger jails with average daily populations of more than 100 or so, suicide is the most common cause of death in jails nationwide. The overall suicide rate nationwide is at a 30-year high, according to the federal Center for Health Statistics, and Bishop said jails are seeing that manifest in their facilities.

"It's no longer just a jail problem, it's a problem in our communities and our society," he said.

Suicide has been the leading cause of death in the nation's jails since 2000, according to the Department of Justice.

From 2000 to 2013, the average suicide rate in the nation's state prisons was 16 per 100,000 inmates, and 41 per 100,000 in jails. In the nation's local jails in 2013, a third of all inmate deaths were by suicide, and the suicide rate was 46 per 100,000 inmates.

Among the public as a whole, the national suicide rate in 2014 was 13 deaths per 100,000 people.

There's an active debate among jail administrators about how to best track suicides in custody, Bishop said.

The nationwide 46 per 100,000 number uses jails' average daily population, but jail populations aren't static. Using an average daily resident figure over the course of a year doesn't take into account the fact that jail inmates, by definition, don't commonly stay long, Bishop said. Knowing that doesn't diminish the lives of those who died, he said, but it does add some perspective.

Clark County's jail sees about 15,000 to 16,000 bookings annually. King County's jails expect more than 36,000 bookings this year. The average stay at the Clark County Jail is about 19 days, Bishop said, and the average stay statewide is 16 days, according to the Washington State Statistical Analysis Center.

A HARD TRANSITION

Jail populations are more mobile than prison populations, but another part of the difference between suicide numbers in jails and prisons, Bishop said, likely comes from the significance, and often suddenness, of being booked into jail.

"It rips you out of your reality and puts you in another one," he said. "Two hours ago you were at a party with your friends, you were at a bar having drinks with your family or friends, you were at a family event. Two hours later, there's a steel door that goes shut after you've ridden in the back of a patrol car, and you're in a different world."

Not everyone can handle that, he said.

"People don't cope well with that sudden change."

On the other hand, virtually everyone in prison has spent some time behind bars. At the very least, they were likely held in a local jail pending a sentence.

Bishop cited the World Health Organization's research on suicide worldwide, and the general groups identified as at-risk for suicide. For one, they tend to be younger people, roughly 15 to 29 years old.

Committing crimes tends to be a younger person's activity, and according to the Department of Justice, about 60 percent of all jail suicides from 2000 to 2013 in the United States involved inmates 25 to 44 years old.

The World Health Organization notes that jail inmates often struggle with a mental illness, other mental problems or drug addiction. The National Sheriffs' Association and Treatment Advocacy Center, in a joint report, estimate that at least 16 percent of inmates in jails and prisons have a mental illness, a percentage that has been increasing.

"That's who we get," Bishop said.

FINDING PROPER HELP

Klickitat County Chief Civil Deputy Robert Bianchi said that as services for the mentally ill, drug addicts or people with cognitive disabilities dry up, there's growing bureaucratic inertia that's pushing more people with mental health problems into jails.

His jail, in Goldendale, is relatively small. The average daily population is about 45, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Still, he estimated 25 percent of the people in his jail are dealing with some kind of mental illness. Often they're struggling with schizophrenia or some kind of psychosis. People with mental or cognitive disabilities or addiction problems are at greater risk of adverse outcomes once they're swept up in the legal system.

Since 2000, two inmates killed themselves in the Goldendale jail.

"Like most jails, we're fighting the battle of this jail being used as a mental health depository," he said.

The Goldendale jail has mental health workers at the jail often, and is working to create a kind of triage system to get help to people who need it, and, if needed, get them out of the jail, he said.

"We don't like to see them languishing in jail," he said. "Our belief is we take care of these people. If they're (experiencing an) acute mental health need, we try to get them to the place they need to be."

JAIL IMPROVEMENTS

Bishop said changes at the Clark County Jail made since 2012, when four inmates killed themselves, have prevented more deaths.

The staff is better trained, he said, and workers replaced protruding fixtures around the jail to prevent hangings. Other, newer jails are trying to create facilities that will ease the transition from the outside.

Clark County's jail is built around what's called an indirect-supervision model, Bishop said. There's some wall or barrier between guards and inmates, even as guards keep watch, he said.

In a direct-supervision model, some guards are stationed out among the population. Some inmates would still be isolated, but the idea is to have more guards out among the inmates to better address problems and more readily take the population's temperature.

In his experience, those jails seem cleaner, quieter and have fewer incidents, he said, and he'd like to create more direct-supervision opportunities at the jail.

The jail opened in 1984 and was originally built to house 306 inmates. The sheriff's office has been writing a study to present to the Clark County council on how remodeling the jail or new construction might work.

MENTAL HEALTH CARE

A new jail might not get at the root of the problem, which mental health advocates, and a federal court, say runs deeper.

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Washington violated the constitutional rights of mentally ill people charged with crimes by forcing them to wait in jails for weeks or months for competency services. Kim Moslof, an attorney with the jails project at Disability Rights Washington, said jails have become de facto mental hospitals.

"We've ended up sort of criminalizing a lot of the behaviors around mental illness," she said.

Disability Rights Washington is a federally mandated public watchdog and advocate on behalf of people with mental illnesses or disabilities.

Because so many people in jail -- about four out of 10, according to the Department of Justice -- have some kind of disability, the organization increasingly monitors jails and prisons. Monitors have found instances of inmates not getting medication, including medicine for mental illnesses, problems with physical access or access to programming and misuse of solitary confinement.

Among other things, Moslof said, the organization advocates for some greater level of centralized standard-keeping or management for local jails, because there are few state-mandated jail standards beyond general constitutional requirements.

Moreover, though, communities and lawmakers need to think about how effectively they are using their resources when it comes to helping the mentally ill, she said.

"Their real problem is that they shouldn't be here," Moslof said. "We are always in agreement with the jails about this."

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