Just weeks after being denied bail on sex trafficking charges, financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in a New York City jail. Iron bars and concrete – and damning investigative journalism – had suddenly rendered Epstein's vast wealth and fame impotent, leaving the once freewheeling socialite facing an indefinite jail term, as well as a potential 45-year prison sentence.
Epstein's infamy for decades of sexual abuse of minors (and his connections to politicians like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, along with a laundry list of other powerful people) might've generated splashy headlines, but statistically speaking, his self-inflicted death was just another unremarkable blip in a correctional system where self-harm is rampant.
Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death in jails in America. In 2014, the suicide rate was a whopping 50 deaths per 100,000 inmates, according to the Atlantic, citing U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics – and noting that the DOJ has released no statistics since 2016. The 2016 suicide rate in the general American population was 15 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The suicide rate for people sent to jail is much higher than for people sent to prison, where they typically serve much longer sentences. In state and federal prisons, the 2014 suicide rate was 20 per 100,000 inmates.
The Shock of Confinement
"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]."
"[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."
Lessening Suicide Rates in Jail
If people are being supervised correctly, Deitch notes, it should be very hard or impossible for prisoners to commit suicide. On the flip side, if the agency doesn't take precautions, it can be fairly easy. "There's so many things that someone could use to hurt themselves if they wanted to do that, but a good facility thinks about those things and removes those opportunities."
Rather than stripping away every object and piece of clothing (along with every shred of dignity), Deitch says its best to address each prisoner as a human being, offering compassionate treatment that takes them out of a suicidal mindset. For example, she says, research shows a communal environment – rather than isolation – is the ideal setting. "Interaction is key, and so is supervision." But this kind of hands-on approach requires a lot of care, which is often in short supply amidst a culture of indifference towards inmates.
Still, suicide in jail is not inevitable, "I think there's a myth out there that if someone wants to kill themselves, they'll do it. And that's just wrong," says Deitch. "If someone is deemed suicidal, they need constant supervision, meaning someone is essentially stationed right outside the cell."
Many facilities don't have the resources for that kind of intensive monitoring, so they may check on prisoners every 15 to 30 minutes, which Deitch says is more than enough time for a person to commit suicide. In Jeffrey Epstein's case, guards failed to check on him for at least three hours, reportedly sleeping on the job and falsifying logs to cover up their inattention.
It's a flawed system, one that some experts say needs to be completely overhauled. Solving the problem of jail suicides may require a paradigm shift in how America views mental health issues in general.
"Jails are inherently unfit settings for caring for mental illnesses and other health conditions," says Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. "Which means one of the most effective policy changes that counties can undertake to reduce jail suicides is ensuring that sick people have access to care," with the idea being that as a nation Americans will reduce the odds that troubled people – who aren't necessarily hardened criminals – wind up in jail in the first place.
If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.