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Why Suicides Are A Bigger Problem In Jails Than In Prisons

Texas officials recently announced a plan to begin legislative hearings on jail safety in September. There’s a reason why the hearings focus on jails rather than penitentiaries.

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Since 2009, there have been more than 500 deaths in Texas county jails. Of those, 142 were suicides, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

In large part triggered by the highly publicized suicide of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail, the Texas Senate’s criminal justice committee will start scrutinizing jail standards.

So, why only jails and not state prisons?

“It’s interesting. You have more deaths in jails than in penitentiaries,” said Merily Keller with Mental Health America of Texas and the Texas Suicide Prevention Council. “There are standards that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has promulgated about suicide prevention in jails. There are supposed to be plans, there are steps that have to be done. But unfortunately, there isn’t a good monitoring system for that, and you find out that the jails are not following their plan after a death.”

A 2005 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found the suicide rate in local jails to be three times higher than in state prisons.

Bill Kelly, director of public policy and government affairs at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, said he suspects it has to do with the fact that many people in jails are not yet used to being incarcerated.

And then there’s the issue of mental health in jails, especially in Harris County. The Harris County Jail is often called the “largest mental health facility in the state.”

“It’s pretty solid, whether our jail population is up or down, 30 percent are on psychotropic medication,” Kelly said. “And so what we really are trying to do – and we’ve had some success on the state legislative level – is making sure that those people that are there just because they got sick aren’t incarcerated, but instead have treatment.”

Kelly welcomed the legislative hearings on jail safety and is optimistic that they will bring change. He pointed out one problem that he thinks needs to be addressed.

“Not all jails fall underneath our commission on jail standards, those are typically county jails,” he said. “A lot of city jails aren’t even under that jurisdiction. So when we really talk about standards that keep up with it, we’re missing a whole lot of incarceration facilities that unfortunately have this problem pop up.”

In Houston so far this year, there have been at least two suicides in city jails. There’s been one in the Harris County Jail, according to the TCJS.

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