The apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, the accused sex trafficker, represents an unforgivable failure by the federal prison system. Attorney General William Barr all but said so on Monday, remarking that he was appalled that Epstein was apparently allowed to hang himself in federal custody, noting "serious irregularities" in his handling. Yet suicide in correctional facilities, especially among those recently confined, is not as irregular as it should be. Before Epstein, there was Aaron Hernandez and Sandra Bland — and those are just the names people remember.
In the year after Bland killed herself in a Texas jail in 2015, a HuffPost investigation found that at least 810 people died in jails and lockups, with nearly a third of those cases suicides. According to Justice Department data, suicide is far more common in these sorts of facilities than in prisons, where convicted criminals go long term after sentencing.
Part of the reason Epstein's case is so shocking is that he killed himself in a large federal institution. In general, the facilities most prone to suicide appear to be small local jails that lack the staffing and expertise to prevent it. The federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan may have been short-staffed, but officials there should not have lacked know-how. Now a full investigation and transparency are required.
Make no mistake — many, if not most, cases of suicide in correctional facilities are preventable. A 2016 Justice Department report found that, on average, those who die by suicide in jail killed themselves nine days after entering lockup. This early vulnerability comes as people lose control over practically every aspect of their lives, may be detoxing from alcohol or other substances, and could be in the midst of mental-health episodes. An Associated Press investigation published in June found that "about a third of jail inmates who attempted suicide or took their lives did so after staff allegedly failed to provide prescription medicines used to manage mental illness."
Much attention has already focused on the correctional center's reported failure to monitor Epstein at regular intervals and to house another inmate in his cell, inexcusable lapses given that he had already apparently tried to kill himself. But there are many other procedures that jails and prisons should adopt. It is crucial to house people in the right places from the start — those who require addiction care in appropriate care settings, those who might present suicide risks in cells in which fixtures, clothing and bedding are not conducive to suicide. Ensuring access to appropriate medication is another. Basic screening of those entering lockups is still too rare. Law enforcement officers complain that preventing suicide has become harder as jails and prisons house more people with mental-health problems; detainees should be diverted into treatment early instead of warehoused in jail.
Few people will mourn Epstein. But he and his alleged victims both deserved a different ending.
— The Washington Post