Report Raises Alarm over Suicides in North Carolina Jails

man holding jail cell bars, hanging his head

August 23, 2017
by Andy Jones

Inmates in North Carolina’s network of county run jails are committing suicide at alarmingly high rates, and the state is doing little to prevent it, Disability Rights North Carolina alleges in a new report released August 9.

“The failure to fund and implement diversion strategies, effective suicide prevention policies, and treatment support services for persons with mental illness in our jails has serious consequences,” the report states. “Tragically, preventable suicides have become a regular occurrence in North Carolina jails."

At least 51 of the 111 inmate deaths in the state’s jails over the past four years were by suicide mostly by hanging, often with bed sheets. While Department of Justice statistics show that about a third of inmate deaths are from suicide nationally, North Carolina’s rate exceeds 46 percent, most of whom were people with mental illness.

Unlike the prison system, the state provides little oversight of its jail system, which holds inmates not yet convicted of a crime. In fact, the states has no regulations requiring jails to report suicide attempts, screen for mental illness, or create suicide prevention plans.

In the report, Disability Rights North Carolina calls on all North Carolina jails to implement such plans, consisting of a written suicide prevention procedures, initial and ongoing screening for mental illness, annual staff training on suicide prevention and initial and follow-up screenings of inmates, among other requirements.

Furthermore, Disability Rights North Carolina urges jails to construct suicide-resistant cells, highlighting in particular the need for “ventilation grates with small holes,” the “removal of clothing hooks,” and the “closure of gaps between windows and bars.”

“North Carolina does not require jails to use any of the recognized best practices for helping an inmate who has a mental health condition,” said Susan Pollitt, senior attorney with Disability Rights NC, told the News & Observer. “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.”

The full report can be read here [PDF].

Disability Rights Washington and Disability Rights North Carolina are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Washington and North Carolina, respectively, and members of the National Disability Rights Network.