There has been a sharp increase in suicides in prisons and jails due to isolation in the pandemic, staff shortages and drug use, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that between 2001 and 2019 suicides rose 85% in state prisons, 61% in federal prisons and 13% in local jails.
Journal reporters Kris Maher and Dan Forsch attributed the national trend to the compounding effects of isolation of inmates during pandemic protocols, the prevalent use of drugs such as fentanyl, and staff shortages.
Federal prisons reported a decline from 33 in fiscal year 2021 to 18 in fiscal year 2022.
In Pennsylvania, opioid use affects 250-280 of every 400 new inmates, officials there report. Detox protocols for the more powerful Fentanyl-laced drugs that have become prevalent in recent years are taking longer than in the past, about nine days compared to two or three days previously.
San Quentin mental health clinician K. O’Neil talked about the need for more suicide prevention in prisons. “In order to prevent suicide in a carceral setting, there has to be a full community collaborative effort between custody, mental health, external volunteers, the medical staff, and most importantly, among each other.
“When someone is showing signs of depression or hardship, it is vital to step up and reach out to them, because we never know the impact of telling someone that they matter and to keep pushing,
“Prevention starts with checking in with neighbors around you. Each and every one of us can save a life without realizing it,” added O’Neil.
“The amount of isolation that people are experiencing is greater than before,” said Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina, which is an advocacy group that combats discrimination, abuse, and civil rights violations.
David Kratz, director of the Bucks County Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania, cited a shortage of correctional officers due to attrition. This has contributed to increased suicides during the pandemic.
The Journal report on Oct. 19, 2022 said confinement during the pandemic and reductions in familial visits also contributed to the rise in suicides.
The story cited the isolation case of Stephanie Dunbar, who committed suicide in the Louisville jail system in December 2021, after 18 hours locked in a small holding cell because there were no single cells available. An investigator said she was never allowed to use a toilet and no one checked on her condition as required.