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1A Remaking America: Why suicide is the leading cause of death in jails and what we can do about it

Family members, activists and others hold a rally outside of City Hall to demand that the administration of Mayor Eric Adams do more to address the crisis in living conditions at the Rikers Island Jail in New York City.
Family members, activists and others hold a rally outside of City Hall to demand that the administration of Mayor Eric Adams do more to address the crisis in living conditions at the Rikers Island Jail in New York City.

Millions of peopleenter jail in the U.S. every year. They’ve become a revolving door for those with mental health issues or substance-abuse disorders.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inmates are entitled tolife-saving medical care, but that isn’t quite guaranteed.

“The jailers don’t recognize that jails are, in fact, de facto the largest drug detoxification centers in the country, the largest mental illness facilities in the country. And so these jails require a level of treatment that’s just totally missing,” said Andrew Klein who wrote “Death before Sentencing: Ending Rampant Suicide, Overdoses, Brutality, and Malpractice in America’s Jails.” “The result is a totally unacceptable death rate across the country in the nation’s jails.” 

Jail deaths rose 11 percent since 2000 when theU.S. Department of Justicebegan tallying these deaths. Suicides are the leading cause of jail deaths. Fatal drug overdoses are the fastest growingcause of death.

Maggie Luna spent time in and out of jails in Texas. She was left feeling despondent when she asked for help with her mental health and addiction to opioids.

“[Staff]feel a need that it’s their job to perpetuate punishment… instead of looking at it as a place where you are there to help this person become better,” Luna said.

We look at why jail can be so harmful. And we talk about what mental health and substance abuse resources are available to inmates.

This show is part of 1A’s “Remaking America” project. We begin the program by looking at a string of recent jail deaths in Louisville, Kentucky, with help from our partner station WFPL.

Copyright 2022 WAMU 88.5

June Leffler