Almost 77 percent of those who died by suicide in local jails between 2000 and 2019 had not been convicted of any crime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
The high percentage of pretrial suicides, reported in mortality data released Thursday by BJS, reflects the fact that a large portion of jail populations are confined until their trial date, because they are unable to make bail or are judged to be a flight risk.
According to a related BJS report released later in the day, about two-thirds of jail inmates held in mid-2019 were awaiting trial―roughly 480,000 individuals.
The report noted that 734,470 persons were held in jails across the U.S. in mid-2019. Just four states―California, Texas, Florida and Georgia―held more than a third of the jail population.
An estimated 4.9 million people are jailed each year, and about a quarter of them have been booked more than once. Jail populations have been increasing again after slowing down during the pandemic, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Overall jail numbers declined by 17 percent from mid-2019 to September 2020.
The BJS report on prison mortality said suicides accounted for 30 percent of deaths in local jails and 8 percent of deaths in state and federal prisons in 2019, the last year for which complete statistics were available.
A total of 340 persons in state and federal prisons and 355 persons in local jails died by suicide in 2019, BJS announced in its report. The number of suicides in local jails increased 5 percent from 2018 to 2019, while suicides in state and federal prisons remained at the same level.
Suicide has become a crisis at the Rikers Island detention facility in New York. An inmate died at the troubled jail complex in late September, bringing the death toll to 11 this year.
However, the BJS report makes it clear the suicide was on the rise in American jails and prisons before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Nearly a fifth (19 percent) of the nation’s 1,161 state and federal prisons and a tenth (9 percent) of the 2,845 local jails recorded at least one suicide in 2019. More than half of the largest jails (those with an average daily population of 1,000 inmates or more) had at least one death by suicide, as did 45 percent of state and federal prisons holding 2,500 or more persons.
Almost 60 percent of state prisoners who died by suicide during 2001-19 were white.
The average suicide rate for white inmates in local jails was 93 per 100,000 during the 5-year period of 2015-19, which is 5 times the rate for Black inmates (18 per 100,000) and more than 3 times the rate for Hispanic inmates (26 per 100,000).
During 2001-19, state prisoners who had been sentenced for a violent offense accounted for almost 72 percent of suicides in state prisons.
Persons serving time in federal prison for weapons offenses and sex offenses each accounted for about 20 percent of suicides in federal facilities during 2015-19.
Thirty percent of suicides during 2001-19 were of prisoners serving time for murder or nonnegligent manslaughter. Prisoners serving sentences for a drug offense accounted for 8 percent of suicides during the four-year period of 2001-04 and 4 percent during the five-year period of 2015-19.
During 2015-19, about 75 percent of suicides in state prisons and 64 percent of suicides in federal prisons occurred after the first year of imprisonment.
During 2000-19, 90 percent of local jails inmates who died by suicide were male.
However, the number of deaths by suicide among female local jail inmates increased from 124 to 204 deaths between the periods of 2000-04 and 2015-19, rising almost 65 percent.
In jails, two-thirds (66 percent) of local jail suicides during 2015-19 occurred within the first 30 days of incarceration, and 44 percent occurred within the first week.
During 2010-19, almost 73 percent of jail suicides occurred in the person’s cell and 8 percent occurred in jail segregation units.
During 2010-19, almost 14 percent of inmates who died by suicide had at least one overnight stay in a mental health services unit since entering jail.
As in local jails, the majority of suicides in state prisons during 2010-19 were by suffocation, including hanging and self-strangulation.
The second BJS report on jail populations found that 8 of the 10 states with the highest jail incarceration rates were in the South: Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, and Arkansas.
Other findings included:
- About 2,880 juveniles were held in local jails, the majority in urban facilities;
- At midyear 2019, 97,540 inmates (13 percent of the total inmate population) were jailed for violating probation and 28,950 (4 percent) were held for violating parole.
The BJS report and statistical tables can be downloaded here.
The BJS jail population report can be accessed here.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.