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New report: Suicide the leading cause of death in NC jails; NC worse than most states

As noted in this space yesterday, the good people at Disability Rights North Carolina are out with a new, informative, easy-to-read and sobering report on what amounts to a crisis in North Carolina’s jails. The report, which complements this week’s series in Raleigh’s News & Observer is entitled “Suicide in North Carolina Jails.” This is from the release that accompanied the report:

A report released today from Disability Rights North Carolina finds that the rate of suicides in North Carolina jails, as a percentage of all deaths in those jails, is much higher than the national average. The report concludes that regulations governing North Carolina jails are woefully lacking when it comes to identifying, protecting, and helping inmates at risk of suicide.

The report is available here: http://www.disabilityrightsnc.org/sites/default/files/Suicides_NCJails_August2017.pdf

“North Carolina does not require jails to use any of the recognized best practices for helping an inmate who has a mental health condition,” explained Susan Pollitt, senior attorney with Disability Rights NC. “We fail to require mental health screenings. We fail to keep them in safe cells. We fail to train jail staff in suicide prevention. And so, we end up with tragedies that could have been prevented.”

Disability Rights NC staff examined death reports and medical examiner reports, as well as newspaper articles and other media interviews, in order to determine the number of deaths in jails throughout North Carolina, and how many of those deaths were the result of suicide. The data show that from 2013 to 2016, 45.9% of deaths in NC jails were the result of suicide—far higher than the national average, which stood at 35% in 2014.

“Because of the lack of community mental-health services in North Carolina, people facing a mental health crisis often end up in our jails,” said Vicki Smith, executive director of the Disability Rights NC. “Ensuring the safety of people in each county’s jail is the responsibility of the sheriff, front line staff, and county commissioners. Jails must make the necessary investments into training, personnel, and equipment to provide inmates with the help they need.”

A recent article in the News & Observer—one in a series on deaths in North Carolina jails—finds that failure to adequately supervise inmates, including those who had been identified as being at risk for suicide, often contributes to deaths. The Disability Rights NC report calls on every jail to ensure they have a robust and effective Suicide Prevention Program, which should including the following:

  • A written Suicide Prevention Policy
  • Annual staff trainings on suicide prevention
  • Initial screenings of inmates and follow-up screenings
  • Suicide-resistant cells (e.g., ventilation grates with small holes, removal of clothing hooks, closure of gaps between windows and bars)
  • Safe levels of supervision and management (i.e., adequate staff trained to interact with and monitor suicidal inmates)

“These are really common-sense provisions that are essential given the significant number of people with mental health conditions in jails throughout the state,” added Pollitt. “It is unfortunate that jails are now the nation’s largest provider of mental health services. But it is a fact our sheriffs, community commissioners, and state officials cannot shy away from. They must commit the time and resources necessary to keep the people in North Carolina jails safe.”

 

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