The New York City medical examiner’s ruling that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in jail has prompted a lot of hand-wringing about conditions in the facility where he was held. But if the nation had been paying attention, no one would have been particularly surprised by what happened.
The United States is in the midst of a prison suicide epidemic. In 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides accounted for about 1.6% of overall U.S. deaths. That same year, the latest for which Bureau of Justice Statistics have been released, suicides accounted for about 4% of deaths in federal prisons, about 7% of deaths in state prisons, and a whopping 35% of deaths in local jails.
Alabama, where I live, is at the center of the crisis. The state prison suicide rate here is nearly triple the national average, and there’s evidence the numbers are even worse than we know.
In 2017 and 2018, Alabama prisons reported 15 suicides during a 15-month period. Incarcerated men were found hanging from windows, cell doors, light fixtures, vents. One man jumped to his death from a second-floor cellblock. At least 30 people have killed themselves during the last five years while in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
The issue of suicide has been brought front and center in a landmark class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and private attorneys over the state’s prison mental healthcare, which a federal judge called “horrendously inadequate.”