Jailhouse suicides trending upward nationally


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By Royal Calkins

Despite a concerted effort to make jail and prison cells “suicide proof,” inmate suicides increased by nearly 40 percent in the past two decades, according to a recent report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The bureau calculated that a remarkable 6,200 inmates, mostly people who were awaiting trial, killed themselves in county and city jails in the years 2001 to 2019. A statistical breakdown for the number of suicides in state and federal prisons is still being compiled by the bureau.

Only a small portion of the increase in suicide deaths is attributable to a rise in the number of people incarcerated. The Bureau of Justice calculated that 1,406,031 people were incarcerated in U.S. federal or state facilities in 2001 while 1,413,370 were behind federal or state bars in 2019.

The Miami Herald reported that suicide was the leading cause of death in jails from 2001 to 2018, accounting for 30 percent of all jail deaths. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that more than half of suicides in local jails occurred in the first 30 days of incarceration but a different pattern was found in state and federal prisons. There, most of the suicides took place after the inmates had been in custody for more than a year.

In local jails, inmates who had not been convicted of a crime accounted for 77 percent of the suicides, the BJS found. Local jails such as Monterey and Santa Cruz County’s house a mix of inmates awaiting trial and others convicted of relatively minor crimes that didn’t result in state prison terms.

Some other findings: 

  • In the last half of the last decade, about three quarters of the suicides in state prisons took place in the prisoners’ quarters. Some 11% occurred in an isolation cell and 4% in a mental health or medical unit. The percentages were similar for local jails.
  • California had the most local jail suicides between 2001 and 2019 with a total of 615. Texas followed with 448 and Florida with 333.
  • California also led in the number of suicides in state and federal prisons, 596. Texas had 527 and New York edged Florida out for third place at 247.
  • From 2015 to 2019, 57 percent of state prison inmates who committed suicide were white, about a quarter were black and about 15 percent Latino.
  • In state prisons, the portion of suicide victims age 24 or younger decreased significantly in the period of 2015-2019.
  • The bureau also reported that inmates or jail personnel who witness suicides or other self-harming behavior are at heightened risk of long-term psychological repercussions.

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About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

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