Suicides in US prisons, prisons have risen sharply in two decades, federal data shows

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Nearly 700 people were killed in local prisons and state and federal prisons in 2019, according to a new study released Thursday by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Just over half of them, 355 people, were local jail inmates, federal researchers have found. At the state and federal levels, 340 prisoners committed suicide during the same period.

Suicide has long been a leading cause of death in American prisons, followed by heart disease. Experts say the shock of incarceration and the myriad of issues that bring people to prison – including mental illness and addiction – cause people to commit suicide.

Almost a third of all deaths in local prisons in 2019, the most recent year investigated by researchers, were due to suicide, according to the study.

The percentage of suicides was much lower in state and federal prisons, at just 8%.

“Suicide deaths in 2019 were concentrated in the largest prisons,” researchers found. “More than half of local prisons housing 1,000 or more inmates as of June 30, 2019 have reported at least one inmate suicide. “

During the 20-year period assessed by the researchers – from 2000 to 2019 – more than 6,200 inmates in local prisons died by suicide in custody, according to the study. The suicide rate increased by 13% in local prisons between 2000 and 2019.

At the state and federal levels, a total of 4,500 prisoners committed suicide during the same period, an 83% increase over the 20-year period.

Among prisons, California recorded the most suicide deaths, with 615.

It was followed by Texas, which recorded 448 suicides, and Florida, which recorded 333.

Inmates who committed suicide were most often non-Hispanic white males, aged 55 and older, who were in custody for committing a violent crime. Almost 90 percent of suicides were the result of suffocation, including hanging and self-strangulation.

More than three-quarters of those who committed suicide during the 20-year study period – 76% – had not been convicted of a crime. Almost half had been detained for a week or less at the time of their death.

During the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, approximately 18% of suicides in local prisons were committed by people detained for assault.
Almost 10% have been charged with murder or manslaughter, according to the study.

Almost 3 of the 4 suicide cases in local prisons occurred in the person’s cell, and 8 percent occurred in isolation units.

The analysis is the latest in a periodic review by federal officials of deaths among those incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said the report, released Thursday, fulfills a warrant issued by the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

The report does not examine suicides in custody at the county level, but other data shows that deaths in San Diego County jails continue to be a problem.

So far in 2021, for example, 11 people have died in local custody, although the prison population is historically low due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

None of the deaths in custody this year turned out to be suicide, but one of the deceased, Omar Moreno Arroyo, choked on a face mask in January, a death the medical examiner’s office reported. following deemed accidental.

Lester Daniel Marroquin, 35, was found unconscious in his cell at San Diego Central Jail in May, but the Sheriff’s Department has not announced the official cause of his death. According to court records, Marroquin’s lawyer asked if the 35-year-old was mentally capable of standing on trial.

Two men committed suicide in the San Diego County jail last year, according to the medical examiner’s office files – Spiros “Sam” Fonseca, 26, and Joseph Morton, 33.

Morton’s family filed a lawsuit against the county in August, alleging that prison medical staff did not take his threats of injury seriously.

Coincidentally, the San Diego County Supervisory Board on Wednesday voted to approve a nearly $ 3 million settlement to the family of Heron Moriarty, who committed suicide in Vista Jail in 2016 despite repeated warnings from his wife that he was suicidal.

Sworn testimony from a witness in that case claimed that prison workers ignored Moriarty’s calls for help for two days.

In 2019, three locally detained people died by suicide, according to county records. In comparison, four people have committed suicide in Los Angeles County jails.

According to data on file with the state, Los Angeles County jails typically hold three times as many people as San Diego County jails.

San Diego County had the highest prison death rate among California’s largest counties in more than a decade, according to “Dying Behind Bars,” a six-month survey published by The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2019.

More than 165 people have died in county jails since 2009, when Sheriff Bill Gore was appointed.

The survey looked at death rates from 2009 to 2018. San Diego continued to have the highest death rate when 2019 data is taken into account.

Deaths in San Diego County jails have continued at a rate of more than one per month for more than a decade, even as the average daily population has increased from about 5,500 to about 4,000 due of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sheriff’s Department disputed the Union-Tribune’s findings, saying the death rate in its jails is in line with that of other major counties in California.

Nonetheless, the California State Auditor earlier this year opened an independent review of deaths in San Diego County jails. The report is expected to be completed early next year. The sheriff’s department said it welcomed the state’s investigation when it was approved by lawmakers this summer.


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