THE BLOG
08/28/2015 06:09 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

Jail Suicide Is Not Justice

Hector, an inmate in a county jail, had just gotten troubling news. His wife was leaving him, and he would never see her or their two children again. His father had committed suicide years earlier, his best friends had been murdered, and he was facing the possibility of decades behind bars on drug charges. Unbearably depressed, he decided to escape via the only route apparent to him.

The most dangerous thing in jail isn't a fight among prisoners or an officer using excessive force. It's not even cancer or heart disease. The leading cause of death in our nation's jails is suicide, and it's becoming more common. Earlier this month the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the suicide rate for men and women in jail spiked 14 percent between 2012 and 2013, and the suicide rate is up 59 percent since 2008.

Jails are part of a large, complex system charged with protecting public safety. When that system fails to keep people--including those awaiting trial--safe from harm, it's our job as a society to ask why, and how we can make it better.

No single factor can be blamed for more jail suicides, but the decline in services for the mentally ill contributes to this crisis. Since the 1970s, funding and treatment centers for the mentally ill have plummeted. Without resources to help them stay stable, many people with mental health problems run into trouble with law enforcement and wind up in a cell. The problem has gotten so severe that the Los Angeles County Jail has become the nation's largest psychiatric treatment facility.

Personnel at jails of all sizes have been thrust into the role of mental health practitioners, something state and county governments have not adequately trained, equipped, or funded them to do. Most jails are places that exacerbate mental health conditions. Though jail administrators try to screen for depressive tendencies and mitigate risk, a jail cell is the last place we should be sending people with untreated mental illness, especially when they are not violent toward others.

We can go a long way toward stemming the tide of jail suicides. The first step must be to stop asking our criminal justice system to do double-duty as a mental health system. Our current system endangers law enforcement and corrections officers every time they respond to a mental health crisis. It criminalizes and stigmatizes the mentally ill, who would often benefit far more from medical treatment than incarceration. And it sticks taxpayers with the bill for for high incarceration costs.

The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (CJMHA), introduced earlier this year, would take us in the right direction. It would continue support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams that save lives and money; it would fund veteran treatment courts, which serve arrested veterans who suffer from service-related mental health conditions; it would support better mental health training for police officers; and it would improve mental health screening for prisoners.

But improving mental health services will only solve part of the problem. Even for those with no history of serious mental illness, going to jail can be a traumatic, humiliating experience. And while it may be tempting to say that the trauma of incarceration is part of its power as a deterrent, the experience should never be so terrible that it drives people to despair, particularly when at least some are innocent of wrongdoing. The vast majority of people in jail who commit suicide have not yet been convicted of any crime, and many pose no great threat to the community. That includes Sandra Bland, who, according to a county prosecutor, committed suicide in a Texas jail cell after being arrested during a routine traffic stop. It also includes Tevin Garcia, 24, who hanged himself in his Maryland jail cell with a bed sheet six days after his arrest for a misdemeanor, and Kindra Chapman, an 18-year-old woman who took her own life in Alabama after she was arrested for allegedly stealing a cell phone.

Suicide is always tragic. It is unconscionable for us to turn a blind eye to conditions that contribute to jail suicides just because the people involved have been detained by law enforcement. We should do our utmost to prevent them by making the entire criminal justice system more constructive for all prisoners, whether or not they struggle with their mental health. That doesn't mean being soft on crime or making jail time "easy;" it means re-orienting the entire criminal justice system, including jails, around human dignity, rehabilitation, and accountability. It means keeping people out of jail who need treatment instead of punishment, and incarcerating those who need to be locked up for just and appropriate lengths of time. And whenever possible, it means marking out a clear path toward making amends and regaining trust.

Hector didn't die in his cell. At the last minute, he decided not to go through with his contemplated suicide. An alert corrections officer noticed his deep depression and arranged for a local pastor to visit him. Hector found new hope and purpose for his life, going through reentry programming offered by my organization in prison, and completing seminary after he was released.

The care of just one person can be the difference between life and death for someone in jail. And when many more of us care and take action, we might just stem the rising tide of jail suicides--before it's too late.