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Why Are So Many People Dying Preventable Deaths in Indiana Prisons?

Why Are So Many People Dying Preventable Deaths in Indiana Prisons?

This blog contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the suicide prevention hotline at 800.273.8255.

There’s only one place in America where basic healthcare is an undeniable right; that’s prison. Since the incarcerated have no opportunity to seek out healthcare on their own, they rely on the 8th amendment to get the minimum standard of medical care they need. The 8th amendment of the Constitution protects the incarcerated from cruel and unusual punishment, enabling them to receive medical care while behind bars—as being literally locked up without access to medical care is be deemed both cruel and unusual. What’s truly cruel and unusual; however, is the rate at which inmates are dying in Indiana prisons.

Those of you local to Indianapolis may have seen an article in the Indy Star recently highlighting the horrifying statistics related to inmate suicide. Here is what the Indy Star reporters found:

• Since 2010, 125 people have died by suicide in Indiana prisons. That is 42% of all in-prison fatalities, exceeding the national average of 30% and making suicide the leading cause of death.

• 2020 was the worse year for jail suicides in Indiana with 18 total deaths. This is triple the number who died in 2010.

• At least 76% of the suicides occurred in jails that were found by state inspectors to be overcrowded, understaffed, or both—conditions that make it hard to identify and monitor people who might be at risk of suicide.

• 82% of the people were being held pretrial and had not yet had their day in court

• At least 20% of the suicides involved people who jailers should have known, or did know, were suicidal. Some told jailers they had considered suicide or were on suicide watch. Several had even made, and survived, prior attempts to harm themselves in jail. Others were captured on surveillance video making a noose or other preparations.

• More than 40% of the suicides happened within a week of the person being booked into jail. Nearly one in 10 occurred within a person’s first 48 hours behind bars.

• As many as 80% of the roughly 20,000 Hoosiers in Indiana’s county jails are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Being behind bars is overwhelming. It creates extreme anxiety, stress, and fear with research showing that people in prison are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than a person who is not incarcerated. These facts paint a clear picture. Careful evaluation and close monitoring of those entering prison is critical to inmate safety.

According to the Indy Star, new corrections officers in Indiana are required to attend only 8 hours of state-mandated training specifically focused on suicide and mental health. State law also allows new officers to work as long as a year before receiving that training. Suicidal prisoners are supposed to be checked every 15 minutes. In many facilities, this doesn’t occur and the reasoning is astounding.

Prisons are grossly overcrowded and understaffed leading to inadequate prisoner to staff ratios and a virtual impossibility of meeting the every 15 minute check in rule for inmates at risk for self-harm. Corrections officers are also inadequately trained in the area of mental health. More social workers are needed—licensed mental health professionals that adequately evaluate and recommend the safest course of action in dealing with suicidal inmates. Greater efficiency in prescription medication requests and access to psychiatric care is imperative in adequately treating the mental ill behind bars, a larger staff with access to more video surveillance technology in special padded cells designed to protect the mentally ill and suicidal along with stricter adherence to suicide protocols such as the every 15 minute check in and other state mandated procedures.

If rules are expected to be followed on the outside to avoid landing behind bars, the rules need to be followed on the inside as well. As Lindsay Hayes says, a researcher of suicides in jails and prisons for over 40 years, “preserving life is our moral and legal responsibility. Everyone who dies in our jails could have been our son or daughter, our brother or sister, our loved one, our friend.”

As construction continues on the new Community Justice Campus, the replacement for Indianapolis’ Marion County Jail 1, we at Goodin Abernathy hope that all non-clinical personnel get the training they need to better recognize and react to suicidal and mentally ill inmates. We also hope that those incarcerated get the medical and mental health services they so fervently require.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the suicide prevention hotline at 800.273.8255.