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Jail Suicide Rates High Due to Inadequate Mental Health Care

February 26, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp

The failure of the prison system to provide adequate mental health care is causing people to kill themselves at high rates, according to a new report. 

The report, published in February in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet, reviewed data from 27 countries, concluding that some of the factors that cause high suicides rates can be modified. 

The modifiable risk factors for suicide noted by the authors included psychiatric diagnosis, suicidal thoughts during the current period in prison, and single-cell occupancy. A more robust health care for prisoners which adequately addressed these factors could reduce the number of suicides in prison, the authors suggested.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people in confinement, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. 

More than 1,000 people died in local jails in 2016 in America, according to a report released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics earlier in the month. About half of these deaths were preventable, and suicide was the most common cause of death, representing about a third of all deaths. 

For contrast, about half of the total deaths could be attributed to some form of disease with heart disease as the second leading cause at about 28% of total deaths, which is slightly less than the suicide rate. Nearly 40% of deaths happened within a week of incarceration.

The 31% death by suicide figure was a 1.9% decrease in deaths from 2015. 

“These preventable deaths are the tragic result of healthcare and jail systems that fail to address serious health problems among the jail population – both inside and out of the jail setting – and of the trauma of incarceration itself,” said the Prison Policy Initiative in a written statement.

Studies have indicated that jail inmates are significantly more likely to have serious mental illnesses than the average American population and more likely to suffer from substance abuse and underlying health conditions. 

Notably, the coronavirus has made jail even more potentially lethal as concerns about the spread of the virus has highlighted the vulnerability of many incarcerated people, opening up questions about how this will ultimately impact the incarceration system in the U.S. 

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