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The alarming rate of suicide in US jails

Why would someone in jail for a minor charge kill herself? The question has popped up in reaction to Sandra Bland's death, which authorities claim is a suicide (and family members dispute). But it's a question that local officials find themselves asking frighteningly often.

The suicide rate in local jails is nearly 3.7 times the national rate. In 2013, the rate in local jails was 46 per 100,000 inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the rate among the US population was 12.6 per 100,000 people, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.

The high suicide rate in part reflects who's typically in jail, Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, explained. Incarcerated populations tend to have a much higher rate of mental health issues — diagnosed and undiagnosed — that can lead to suicide. "They're detained, conceivably, as a threat to themselves or others," she said. "A lot of police officers don't know of, aren't aware of, or perceive a lack of accessibility to resources or places in the community where they can take people who are not criminals per se but are disruptive and combative based on their mental illness. And instead they take people to jail because that's the easy thing to do."

But, in some cases, people kill themselves in jail without a clear history of mental health issues, even sometimes when they're being held on minor charges. Why would jailed people kill themselves in this kind of situation? The Washington Post's Radley Balko talked to Lindsay Hayes, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, to find out:

The mere trauma of sitting in a jail cell can be overwhelming, and this is particularly true for someone who has never been in one before. And that could explain the suicides by people who aren't facing serious charges.

"That it was an arrest for a minor crime may not matter. In fact a sense of injustice can only add to the emotional damage. Someone may be sitting in a cell for longer than they were supposed to be. So the walls start closing in. There's the uncertainty, of not knowing when you're going to get out. There's the loss of control. You're cut off from family and friends. And it's all beyond your control. That can be really difficult, especially for someone who hasn't experienced it before."

To address the high suicide rates, experts say jails could adopt better intake screening, better monitoring, and better access to mental health professionals. But many jails don't have the right policies or, when they do, take the measures seriously enough.

"There are certainly going to be cases in which a suicide is a complete mystery, where there were no risks present," Hayes told Balko, referring to jail suicides in general. "But most of the time, these suicides could have been prevented. If you peel back the onion, you usually find that there was unmentioned information that should have been discovered."

Watch: The psychology of police sketches

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