Hector, an inmate in a county jail, had just gotten troubling news. His wife was leaving him, and he would never see her or their two children again. His father had committed suicide years earlier, his best friends had been murdered, and he was facing the possibility of decades behind bars on drug charges. Unbearably depressed, he decided to escape via the only route apparent to him.
The most dangerous thing in
jail isn't a fight among prisoners or an officer using excessive force.
It's not even cancer or heart disease. The leading cause of death in
our nation's jails is suicide, and it's becoming more common. Earlier
this month the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the suicide
rate for men and women in jail spiked 14 percent between 2012 and 2013,
and the suicide rate is up 59 percent since 2008.
Jails are part
of a large, complex system charged with protecting public safety. When
that system fails to keep people--including those awaiting trial--safe
from harm, it's our job as a society to ask why, and how we can make it
No single factor can be blamed for more jail suicides,
but the decline in services for the mentally ill contributes to this
crisis. Since the 1970s, funding and treatment centers for the mentally
ill have plummeted. Without resources to help them stay stable, many
people with mental health problems run into trouble with law enforcement
and wind up in a cell. The
problem has gotten so severe that the Los Angeles County Jail has
become the nation's largest psychiatric treatment facility.