Jails Have High Suicide Rates; Screening Inmates For Mental Ills Difficult


Sandra Bland’s apparent suicide in a Texas jail is not so surprising as her family believes, NPR says. The grim reality is that jails have high suicide rates. Part of the reason, says corrections expert Steve J. Martin, is the “shock of confinement.” Jails often house people who’ve never been in serious legal trouble before, and it can have a traumatic effect on them. “It overtakes your being in the sense that normalcy is gone,” Martin says. Martin, the court-appointed monitor for New York’s reform effort in its Rikers Island jail, says jail can be especially traumatic for someone who’s a straight arrow. About 1,000 people die in U.S. jails every year and about a third of those are suicides. Martin says prison administrators have the advantage of getting detailed information about the inmates they receive. Jails do not. “When you come right off the street, there is a world of difference in the risk of harm that relates to that person about whom you literally know little or nothing,” he says.

Jails screen new arrivals for depression; it’s often a questionnaire, the kind given to Sandra Bland twice in Waller County. Even when mental illness is obvious, jailers may seem dangerously indifferent. “If you went into Waller County jail 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have any intake screening. They might ask about ‘Do you have any medical issues right now?’ and that would be about it. They never would have asked any questions about suicide or mental illness and such,” says Lindsay Hayes of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. Mental health screening is a given these days, even in tiny jails. He says jailers can’t rely on questionnaires. Too often, when a new inmate answers the question about feeling suicidal with a “No,” Hayes says the jailers figure they can stop paying attention to his mental health.

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