The number of inmate suicides in state prisons climbed by more than 30 percent during a one-year period, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the Department of Justice.
The statistical study, Mortality in State Prisons, 2001-2014, released on Dec. 15, noted that in 2013, 192 state prison inmates died from suicide, while the total for 2014 rose to 249. Suicide deaths accounted for 7 percent of the 3,483 state prisoners who died in 2014, and reached their highest level since 2001, when BJS began keeping mortality data for state prison inmates. The jump in state prison suicides between 2013 and 2014 followed a 6 percent decline between 2012 and 2013. The data were drawn from the BJS Deaths in Custody Reporting Program.
The largest cause of state prison inmate deaths, illness, remained stable in 2014, at about 87 percent of all state prisoner deaths, or a rate of 275 deaths per 100,000 inmates, compared with 273 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013. Other causes of deaths — accidents and drug or alcohol intoxication — also remained largely unchanged, with each accounting for about 1 percent of total prisoner deaths in 2014.
During the same year, suicide was the leading cause of inmate deaths in local jails, and accounted for 35 percent of jail deaths, the highest level since BJS began tracking those statistics in 2000. Jail suicides in 2014 were up by 13 percent over 2013 levels — the figures are 328 in 2013 and 372 in 2014. The suicide rate for local jails rose from 136 per 100,000 inmates in 2013 to 140 per 100,000 inmates in 2014.
Scholars explain the higher-than-expected suicide rates at local jails in various ways. Some point to the “shock of confinement,” the disruption from regular life and the added stresses and special challenges for an inexperienced inmate, noting suicides are more likely to occur among inmates being held for trial than among those serving time after a conviction. Others note jails are less likely to have intake methods and staff trained to identify mental health issues, while prisons are more likely to have better information on their inmates and greater resources and experience dealing with those issues.
More than one out of five jail suicides were by inmates being held in solitary confinement or special housing units, while almost half of jail suicides involved inmates in the jail’s general population.
The mortality reports observed some racial and ethnic disparities for deaths from illness, and the same was true for suicides. For federal and state prisons combined, suicide accounted for the deaths of about 7 percent of white inmates, compared with about 3.5 percent of black inmates.
The disparity was even sharper for jail inmate suicides: white inmates there were more than five times more likely to kill themselves than were black inmates; Hispanic inmates in jails had a suicide rate about 23 percent higher than black jail inmates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a racial disparity in suicides similar to that for prison inmates holds true for males in the general population between the ages of 45 and 64.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.