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Department of Justice Reports on Two Decades of Prisoner Suicides

by Matt Clarke

When actor Peter Robbins died by suicide in California on January 18, 2022, the news saddened fans of Charlie Brown, whose voice he provided for animated Peanuts specials in the 1960s. But Robbins, 65, also struggled with mental illness behind bars, spending four years in a San Diego lockup, including a stint in solitary. That he lived over two years after his release makes Robbins relatively lucky, as a new report makes clear.

Nationwide, prisoners are four times as likely to take their own lives as the average American. The deaths are violent, too, with nine of ten people who’ve killed themselves in lockups dying from suffocation by hanging or self-strangulation. Even more cruel: Over three-quarters were pretrial detainees who had not been convicted of a crime.

Those are some of the top-line results of a report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2021, analyzing prisoner suicides from 2000 through 2019.

From 2001 to 2019, suicides accounted for 5% to 8% of all deaths among those incarcerated in prisons and 24% to 35% of jail prisoner deaths. The overall U.S. share of deaths due to suicide, by comparison, was just 1.7%.

Those in jails are three times more likely to commit suicide than those held in prisons, but being on suicide watch in any lockup is also one of the rare places where being white doesn’t favor the odds of survival: Most of those who died were neither Black nor Hispanic. Nor were most female, since men accounted for over 70% of suicides in the study period (though the share claimed by women jumped 5%).

Suicides were recorded in nearly one out of five state and federal prisons in 2019, a total of 217 facilities, 71 of which reported more than one suicide. That same year, over half of jails with a prisoner population of 1,000 or more reported at least one suicide. Jail suicides were concentrated in the largest jails; of those reporting no suicides, the median bed-count was 110 beds, while for those reporting one suicide it was 305 beds and for those with two or more suicides it was 1,296 beds.

While over half of jail suicides happened within the first 30 days of incarceration, the majority of prison suicides were committed by those who had already served over a year of their sentence. In both jails and prisons, most suicides occurred in the prisoner’s cell or room during daylight hours.

One bit of bright news was that jail suicides occurring within the first 24 hours of incarceration decreased from 22% of the total to 12% over the study period, perhaps reflecting improved screening and monitoring following numerous successful lawsuits against local jails over preventable prisoner suicides. (See sidebar on page 32.)

But the overall number of suicides per year behind bars rose markedly from 499 to 695. Despite a big increase in the prison suicide rate—from 14 to 21 per 100,000—it was dwarfed by the rate in jails, which fluctuated over the study period between 36 and 48 per 100,000.

There were regional differences, too. The rate of prison suicides was highest in the Northeast (22/100,000) and West (21/100,000) while much lower in the Midwest (16/100,000) and South (15/100,000). Utah (43/100,000) and Alaska (38/100,000) recorded the highest prison suicide rates. Alabama, Kentucky, Maine and North Carolina tied for the lowest rate (10/100,000), just above the federal Bureau of Prisons (9/100,000).

Among jails, rates were higher in the Midwest (55/100,000) and West (49/100,000) than in the Northeast (41/100,000) and South (37/100,000). Montana (120/100,000) and Maine (94/100,000) had the highest jail suicide rates. Louisiana (20/100,000) and Kentucky (21/100,000) had the lowest.

The predominant demographic to commit suicide behind bars was non-Hispanic white males. The suicide rate for whites in jails (93/100,000) was over three times higher than the rate for Hispanics (27/100,000) and over five times that of Blacks (18/100,000). In prisons, the rates were lower, but whites still accounted for the lion’s share.

In prisons at both the state and federal level, the highest rates were recorded among the newest prisoners, declining with the length of time served. Over the 20-year period covered, the report documents nearly 6,200 prisoner suicides, emphasizing the need for improvement in suicide prevention among the incarcerated. This could start with more humane treatment of prisoners in general—especially those newly arriving in local jails.   

Sources: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Department of Justice, San Diego Union Tribune

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