From 2008 to 2014, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported a 40 percent increase in suicides in prison, and the system is on track to meet those numbers this year. More inmates also are attempting to kill themselves, according to records that the Dallas Morning News obtained under state public records laws. Attempted suicides grew 30 percent from 2008 to 2014, and 2015 is on course for another increase. What's more concerning, say advocates for change in Texas prisons, nearly one-third of the 134 suicides from January 2011 to September 2015 happened in administrative segregation, cells designated for solitary confinement. Yet solitary confinement accounts for less than 4 percent of the prison population.
The increasing number of suicides and attempts also comes as the population in Texas prisons has dropped nearly 5 percent since 2008. Advocates say the figures show an urgent need to improve mental health care for inmates, better train officers to recognize signs of mental distress and have independent oversight of the prison system. “We have a constitutional obligation to keep safe the people who we lock up. This isn't just a good idea; it's the law,” said Michele Deitch of the University of Texas at Austin, a prison expert. Prison officials say most inmates are stopped before suicide attempts turn fatal. The trend, they say, reflects the reality that more prisoners suffer from mental illness, even though the overall inmate population is dropping. “We've been able step up and do very good, solid work,” said Dr. Joseph Penn of the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides health services for 80 percent of inmates. “We have a very effective suicide prevention program.”