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Inmate Suicides Have Risen Sharply During The Pandemic

Suicides in prisons and jails across the U.S. have risen sharply over the past two years, data collected by the Wall Street Journal show, a trend that officials and inmate advocates say is driven partly by the increased isolation of inmates during the pandemic, more abuse of drugs including fentanyl, and staff shortages. Prison and jail officials in several states are working on making efforts that will help assist inmates with mental health and self-harm issues. During the COVID-19 outbreak, inmates were confined to their cells for extended times and were unable to meet with family members as visitation was been restricted. “The amount of isolation that people are experiencing is greater than before,” said Susan Pollitt of Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy group focused on discrimination, abuse, and other rights violations, including in prisons.

Recent data from some prison and jail systems showed suicide deaths increasing this year even as the pandemic has waned and many facilities have restored visitation. Dave Kratz, director of the Bucks County, Pa., Department of Corrections, cited a lack of corrections officers to combat the rising increase in the abuse of fentanyl by inmates. Out of every 400 new inmates, 250 to 280 require detox protocols that take about nine days, Kratz said, compared with two or three days in years past. He has 70 vacancies for corrections officers, compared with 20 to 30 before the pandemic, resulting in more mandatory overtime. To help with both the isolation and drug use for inmates, Kratz has converted 60 cells to be suicide-resistant by taking away bedsheets and other measures. This week, he is opening a unit for up to 90 inmates who are in acute detox or a mental-health crisis so guards can check them more efficiently. “This is not a flash in the pan with these detoxes and mental-health issues,” Kratz said. “This is going to be with us for a while.”


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