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What Can Be Done to Lower the Suicide Rate of Those Behind Bars?

Most of our readers have heard of Sandra Bland. She is the 28-year-old woman found hanging in a Texas jail cell three days after her arrest following a traffic stop. A medical examiner determined that she committed suicide. Her family and others dispute the notion that Bland, who was about to start a new job, would take her own life.

Whether it is ever determined for certain how Bland ended up hanging by a trash can liner, her death raises once again the issue of the number of suicides (or at least deaths ruled to be suicide) behind bars. It also raises questions about what responsibility the people working in correctional facilities have for the safety of those in custody.

According to the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, suicide is the number one cause of death for people in custody. The U.S. Department of Justice says the suicide rate for inmates is triple that of non-incarcerated people.

Families across the country have settled lawsuits involving loved ones who committed suicide in correctional facilities. Florida is certainly not immune to the problem. Earlier this year, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office came under investigation after two inmates reportedly killed themselves within days of each other. In 2014, a man in a Florida-Dade jail hung himself.

The demographics of inmate suicides are interesting. The vast majority of the approximately 3,800 U.S. inmates whose deaths were attributed to suicide between 2002 and 2012 were men. According to one expert, white inmates are three times more likely to kill or attempt to kill themselves than African-American ones.

Those who have studied the issue point to mental illness as a primary cause of suicide behind bars. When people with mental health issues have the frightening, stressful experience of being arrested and placed in custody, the situation may be overwhelming. People who are facing their first arrest are particularly susceptible.

One consultant who works with correctional facilities says that a comprehensive mental health screening is key when people are placed in custody. So is keeping holding cells safe. This is the first place someone under arrest is generally placed. They should be free of anything with which someone can harm themselves.

Law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities and those responsible for them have a duty to those in their care. If a loved one dies behind bars, you have a right to ask questions and seek justice.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Sandra Bland’s death brings attention to suicides in jail,” Jason Meisner and Lolly Bowean, July 24, 2015

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