"Jails are getting people when they're at their most vulnerable," emails Michele Deitch, a University of Texas at Austin lecturer who specializes in prison and jail conditions. "There's this real shock that your life is not going to be the same as it was before. Everything you're used to, whether it's your freedom or having your family or going to a job or dressing however you want to dress [is gone]."
There's even a name for this. It's called "the shock of confinement." One report found that most jail suicides occurred in the first week of detention.
"[People] may have been injured in the course of their arrest, and they may be detoxing from alcohol or other substances," says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project in an email interview. "And they may feel fearful, ashamed, and generally overwhelmed at the prospect of what will happen to them next."
Fathi points out that anyone with untreated mental illness or chronic physical pain may see suicide as their only recourse. But there are plenty of other potential variables that contribute to hopelessness and despair. "Solitary confinement is a major risk factor for suicide; a hugely disproportionate number of prison and jail suicides occur in solitary confinement," he says. "Suffering rape or other violence, whether at the hands of staff or other prisoners, can also trigger suicide, as can receiving bad news (such as an adverse development in one's criminal case, the break-up of a marriage, or the death of a loved one)."
In a perfect world, Deitch says, jail officials would be highly skilled in four critical skills including, "Identifying people who are at risk; providing any treatment that's necessary; assuring that they're in appropriate housing; and that they're being adequately supervised."
But compared to prison staff, jail authorities know very little about their subjects. "By the time someone arrives at prison, any mental health issues or suicidal tendencies will have had more of a chance to surface," says Maurice Chammah, staff writer at The Marshall Project via email. "Jails try to learn about new arrivals through questionnaires, but if someone lies about their mental state, then it makes things harder, and people don't stay for very long, so there isn't the same incentive to really examine all of their needs thoroughly."
There's also the matter of how best to proceed if a newly jailed inmate is deemed suicidal.
"In many cases, people who clearly want to hurt themselves are stripped of clothing and put into harsh, barebones jail cells, where there's no furniture, no sink, and no bed, just a hole in the floor where they can relieve themselves," says Deitch. It's the kind of place that, "if you weren't suicidal before, you could easily become suicidal."