On the day that Sandra Bland’s family filed a federal lawsuit over what officials say was her suicide in a Texas jail, a report released Tuesday shows the number of suicides continuing to rise in local jails.
The report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000 - 2013,” found that the number of suicides in local jails increased from 300 in 2012 to 327 in 2013.
Suicide was the leading cause of deaths in jails, up 12 percent since 2009 and accounting for 34 percent of deaths in 2013.
The report also found that overall the number of inmates who died in jails and state prisons rose for the third straight year — 4,446 in 2013, up 131 deaths from the year before. The total was the highest number reported since 2007.
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Most jails, 80 percent, reported no deaths in 2013. Nearly a quarter of all deaths among jail inmates, 23 percent, occurred in Texas and California, which had the largest state and federal prison populations.
Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth, Florida, which advocates on criminal justice topics, said there were no surprises in the numbers.
“Barring any change in our sentencing practices, and also in our medical and mental-health care, these numbers are only going to go up,” said Wright, a former prisoner himself.
Approximately 2.2 million people were incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States in 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Bland, 28, was found dead in her cell in Waller County on July 13 and officials say she hanged herself with a plastic trash can liner, a finding her family has questioned. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards criticized the Waller County Jail for insufficient training.
Bland’s family is suing the state trooper, Brian Encinia, who pulled her over, and others they say are responsible for her death. Encinia has been placed on administrative duties after he was found to have violated procedures regarding traffic stops.
Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland's mother, told reporters that although it was possible that her daughter had killed herself, her sense as a mother was that she did not.
"The bottom line is: She never should have been inside of the jail, period," she said.
Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said that to reduce suicides, jails must operate like a large emergency room, with a system to identify prisoners who are at risk, to monitor them and to provide them with adequate care.
“And all of these things must occur very quickly because the risk of suicide is higher at intake and during the first week of incarceration than later in incarceration in a jail setting,” he said.
Ayesha Delany-Brumsey, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, said jails can take a number of steps to reduce the number of suicides — from screening prisoners throughout their stay using trained mental-health professionals to forming relationships with community-health providers who might already know the inmates.
“So that if someone’s on medication or someone’s known to be chronically suicidal that that information can get passed on quickly — of course with the person’s consent — but so that the jail staff knows when the person enters that they have someone who they need to pay attention to,” she said.
The number of deaths in jails as a result of drug or alcohol intoxication, accidents and homicides also rose. Homicides and accidental deaths were less common, accounting for 3 percent or less of deaths in jails in 2013, according to the report. Illness-related deaths declined.
The typical jail inmate who died was a white male 35 years old or older and in custody for fewer than seven days.
As far as deaths in state prisons, Texas and California again led with nearly a quarter. Every state department of corrections reported at least one death.
The number of deaths was up 122 from 2012 to 2013. About 90 percent were related to illness, with about half a result of cancer or heart diseases. The number from liver disease, the third leading cause, declined.
Suicides accounted for 6 percent of the deaths; homicides for 3 percent.
Also: the percentage of those who died who were 55 or older has increased by an average of 5 percent a year since 2001 and although the average mortality rate for men and women was nearly equal, the suicide mortality rate among males was 1.5 times the rate for females.