CT on par with nation in prison suicides but not part of rising trend
It’s hard to commit suicide in a Connecticut prison, but it still happens.
The state recorded two suicides in its prison system in 2018, and two the year prior. Before that, the state averaged four suicides per year across the entire system for more than a decade, according to data from the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
That puts Connecticut roughly on par with most states across the nation in terms of the rate of suicide per the number of inmates.
The rate is only a small piece of a picture that includes widely varying prison systems hard to compare from state to state; a struggle to find and hire mental health professionals in prisons; and increased awareness and diagnosis of mental health and addiction in some states.
“It goes without saying that one suicide is one too many and the Department of Correction places a heavy emphasis on keeping people under our care and custody safe,” said Karen Martucci, a department spokeswoman. “We train our staff to look for signs that would indicate that someone is struggling and have built a strong relationship between our custody and mental health staff to ensure effective communication.”
The death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself while awaiting trial this month at a federal prison in Manhattan, has brought renewed attention to the issue across the nation, from county jails to federal prisons. Though the issue is difficult to track — no new comprehensive data has been released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics since 2016 — experts generally agree, based on court documents and prison records, that the rate of suicide in jails and prisons has slowly been trending upward.
This is usually attributed to lagging staffing levels, especially in prison healthcare across the nation, and increasing rates of mental illness and addiction among incarcerated populations.
Nationally, as of 2014 (the latest figures available) suicides accounted for nearly a third of all deaths in local and county jails, more than any other cause. In state prisons, suicides represented 7 percent of all deaths in such facilities across the country, the largest proportion since 2001.
The 2014 suicide rate in federal prisons, like the one where Epstein was housed, was 14 for every 100,000 inmates, also the highest since 2001.
The rate of suicide in jails was 46 per 100,000 in 2013, much higher than in state prisons where that rate was 15 per 100,000 nationally. In Connecticut, the average annual rate of suicide is 24 per 100,000 prisoners across all jails and prisons.
A combined rate is not available for most states, making Connecticut difficult to compare.
Connecticut is one of six states that don’t have county jail systems. That means the entire incarcerated population, both pre-trial and sentenced, is housed in state-run facilities. That’s compared to most states where people awaiting trial are held in local jails, and some low-level sentences are served in jail as opposed to a state prison
As a result, every inmate in Connecticut, whether they’ve been sentenced or not, is subject to the intake procedures that are standard across the state’s prison system and includes an intensive mental health screening that is intended to identify whether a person might be at a risk of suicide. This occurs whether the person will be in jail for a few days or many years, and ultimately helps keep Connecticut’s suicide rate low.
In addition to added general oversight, Connecticut has one facility — Garner Correctional Institution — specifically designated to house anyone with significant mental health issues requiring focused attention, including a high suicide risk.
“The oversight is more intense so it’s harder to cut corners in Connecticut than it would be to in a county jail,” said Mike Lawlor, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven who was undersecretary for criminal justice policy under former Gov. Dannel Malloy.
“In general the highest risk for suicide are people that have just been admitted to jail or prison, usually for the first time in their lives. Epstein is a good example,” Lawlor said. “And in that case, it was 100 percent preventable. If you talk to any professional, it was completely outrageous. They were not keeping an eye on a guy who had already attempted suicide once. It was a very exceptional situation but the typical suicide is not like that.”
Lawlor added that because Connecticut’s prison population has been declining, older facilities that weren’t necessarily designed with suicide prevention in mind have closed, and overcrowding, which has also been linked to higher suicide rates, isn’t a problem in Connecticut.
Even with all of Connecticut’s protections, sometimes suicide still happens, Martucci said, adding that anytime someone completes a suicide in a Connecticut prison, the entire system is evaluated to determine how it might have been prevented and a report is produced. Details of individual cases and resulting changes were not made immediately available pending a Freedom of Information request filed earlier this past week.
In addition to individual reports, Martucci said the department did an overall analysis of its suicide prevention systems last year.
“We took a look at the locations where any attempt had been made, never mind completed, where there was some level of self harm,” Martucci said. “Is there a pattern here? Is there a cell that has poor visibility? Is there a particular unit that has more attempts than others? We didn’t have any glaring patterns when we looked at it last year.”
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