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Prisoner Suicides and Attempts Increasing in Texas

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) reported a 40% increase in suicides between 2008 and 2014. As of September 2015, the average number of suicide attempts in Texas prisons each month had jumped 28% from 81.7 attempts per month in 2014 to 104.5 attempts per month during the first eight months of 2015.

Nearly one-third of the 134 TDCJ prisoner suicides from January 2011 to September 2015 occurred in administrative segregation (ad seg) units, yet prisoners in ad seg account for only 4% of the overall state prison population.

Most of the attempted and completed suicides happened in the TDCJ’s largest facilities and units dedicated to the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues.

TDCJ officials responded to the surge in prisoner suicides by increasing the amount of mental health training for staff members. New guard cadets receive over 33 hours of mental health training at the TDCJ academy, while current officers receive monthly sessions. The training includes recognition of prisoners in mental health distress and procedures for dealing with them.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said around 23,000 of the department’s 148,000 prisoners receive outpatient mental health treatment, while over 1,400 are in inpatient care and about 600 are on the specialty caseload.

“One suicide is too many,” said Clark. “And our staff works very hard to identify those offenders who might want to harm themselves.”

Yet the person responsible for the mental health care of about 80% of TDCJ prisoners seems less concerned about the rising rates of suicides and suicide attempts. Dr. Joseph Penn, director of mental health services at the University of Texas Medical Branch, opined they “have a very effective suicide prevention program.” He doesn’t believe statistics that say suicides and attempts are on the rise in state prisons. Rather, Penn thinks guards are reporting attempted suicides when prisoners have no intention of killing themselves; he also thinks some deaths are erroneously classified as suicides.

“A coroner or pathologist may review a case that looks like suicide, but it could be murder or autoerotic asphyxiation,” he stated. “This is an extremely complicated issue.”

Further, Penn believes that prisoners often receive better mental health care behind bars than they had prior to their incarceration. And if anything, the idea that murders – especially in segregation units – are being misreported as suicides is even more disturbing than the increasing suicide rate.

Reformers have cited other issues as the causes of increased suicide and attempted suicide rates within the TDCJ – including inadequate staffing and insufficient mental health care.

A staffing shortage is one contributing problem, according to Doug Smith, a policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The TDCJ reported over 3,000 guard vacancies statewide as of November 2015, about 10% of its security workforce. [See, e.g., PLN, Dec. 2014, p.48]. Guard shortages result in many problems, including less prisoner supervision which in turn leads to greater opportunities for prisoners to engage in self-harm.

Smith was one of several criminal justice reform advocates who called on Texas lawmakers to create an independent oversight body to review and reform conditions in TDCJ facilities that contribute to prisoner deaths.

Center for Public Policy Priorities policy analyst Katherine Ligon advocated that the state provide both medications and therapy for mentally ill prisoners, with the projected twin benefits of fewer prisoner suicides and lower rates of recidivism.

Speaking to the high number of suicides that take place within segregation units, Ligon also advocated curtailing the use of ad seg, especially for mentally ill prisoners.

“You’re only exacerbating some of those behaviors and some of those ideations of suicide” when offenders are held in solitary confinement, she noted. 

Sources:;;; TDCJ Emergency Action Center, Select Statistics (August 2015)


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