Following the death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, experts say a lack of monitoring in correctional centres across the U.S. is contributing to a growing problem of inmate suicides.
Hundreds of prisoners in American jails die by suicide each year, regardless of whether or not they’re high-profile inmates like Epstein, according to New York attorney Joel Wertheimer.
Wertheimer cited an investigation by the Associated Press found that in 2014 there were 372 reported suicides in 3,000 jails surveyed, according to federal statistics.
The report, which looked into suicide rates from 2000 to 2014, said possible patterns of neglect and maltreatment of inmates were factors in the number of suicides, which reached a high of 50 deaths per 100,000 inmates in its latest year.
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“We see it in our practice,” said Wertheimer, who is a civil rights attorney. “People who, where the jail knows that the person is suicidal and that even if they are on suicide watch, there are instances of people still being able to commit suicide.”
Epstein had been found two weeks ago on the floor of his Manhattan jail cell in a semiconscious state with bruises on his neck, according to unnamed sources who spoke with NBC News.
It was unclear whether the injuries were self-inflicted or were from an assault. Sources who spoke further with NBC News said Epstein was later placed on suicide watch in July.
Kenneth Gray, a criminal justice and forensic science lecturer from the University of New Haven, told Global News in an email that “suicide watch is mostly designed to stop a prisoner from hanging himself.”
“A suicide watch prisoner is usually placed in a cell alone,” Gray said. “He is sometimes dressed in a paper gown which could not be used to hang oneself. Most suicide watch cells have cameras, but the staff cannot watch just one prisoner.”
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An unnamed source who spoke with the Associated Press said Epstein had been taken off suicide watch prior to his death, but confirmed no more details on the timing.
“I think people are arguing, with Jeffrey Epstein, that he should have gotten more watch, or that how could this happen while somebody was on suicide watch. And the truth is that it happens when people are on suicide watch all the time,” said Wertheimer.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, who is senior fellow and acting director of the justice program at the Brennan Centre for Justice, said suicide was the leading cause of death in local prisons, accounting for more than one of out every three deaths (35 per cent) in 2014.
“It’s a growing problem. It’s a concerning problem,” Eisen said.
“I think it points to our very much misguided reliance on jails and prisons as a one-size-fits-all sanction on those who violate the criminal code and so many of the people who are in these facilities should not be there in the first place.”
“And given that we see so many suicides in these facilities, that’s quite indicative jails and prisons are not the right environment for these individuals.”
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It found that of a total of 811 prison fatalities that occurred during a one year period following Bland’s death, 253 deaths were attributed to suicide and that 26 per cent of suicides took place within three days of being jailed.
Epstein, whose death was confirmed by the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons, was found at 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
After Epstein was discovered, “life saving measures were initiated immediately by responding staff,” according to a statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“Mr. Epstein was transported by EMS to a local hospital for treatment of life-threatening injuries, and subsequently pronounced dead by hospital staff,” the statement read.
Cameron Lindsay, a former warden of three federal lockups, says Epstein’s suicide in jail shows a “shocking failure” of the system, and that he should have been under constant supervision.
The Metropolitan Correctional Centre (MCC) in Manhattan, where Epstein was being held, requires two jail guards to make separate checks on all prisoners every 30 minutes and on prisoners who are on suicide watch every 15 minutes.
An unnamed source told Reuters that the same procedure of monitoring inmates was not followed the night of Epstein’s apparent suicide.
According to statistics published by Mental Health First Aid USA, 93 per cent of jails had a suicide watch protocol, but less than two per cent had any sort of “around-the-clock” observation for those individuals.
Epstein was being held in the jail’s Special Housing Unit, a part of the MCC that separates high-profile inmates from the general population under heavy security.
Attorney General William Barr says said he was “appalled” to learn of Epstein’s apparent suicide, and that his death while in federal custody “raises serious questions that must be answered.”
The FBI and the Office of the Inspector General are also investigating Epstein’s death.
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With files from Reuters and the Associated Press