The high-profile suicide of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez cast a spotlight on a stubborn problem in the Commonwealth: The rate of inmate suicides in Massachusetts prisons remains high. But a recent report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published by the Globe, shows that the picture is even bleaker in county jails, where suicides have doubled from an average of four per year between 2006 and 2011 to eight annually from 2012 to 2016.
The worst offender: Bristol County under Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. In the last decade, Bristol has had 14 suicides, or 50 percent more suicides than Suffolk County, and more than twice as many as Essex and Worcester counties. Bristol accounted for nearly a quarter of the 65 jail suicides from 2006 to 2016, even though it only accounts for 13 percent of the jail population.
Since 2012, county jail inmates have committed suicide twice as often as those incarcerated in state prisons: 18 vs. 42, even though both systems house about the same number.
“How can it be that if you’re arrested for a nonviolent crime, you are much more likely to commit suicide if you end up in Bristol County than in any of the other county jails?” asked Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, an inmate advocacy group.
Most sheriffs would say that they don’t get enough money to tackle the problem. In Bristol County, Hodgson doesn’t even seem to be trying. Instead, the county throws too many mentally ill inmates into solitary confinement rather than providing them with health services, thus increasing their suicide risk, according to prison advocates.
In contrast, consider Hampden County, where a simple antisuicide effort is producing results. There are posters and brochures to raise suicide awareness and suggest how to get help. Hampden also has its own mental health department, as opposed to most counties, where the task is handed off to a contractor. Hampden has 10 full-time mental health clinicians, representing more than triple the staff of other county jails of similar size.
In the last five years, three inmates have committed suicide in Hampden County jail — half the number in Essex, Suffolk, and Worcester county jails for the same period.
One reason this disparity is that sheriffs’ offices operate like independent fiefdoms. Sheriffs are pretty much accountable to no one, other than voters every six years. And the state’s department of correction has very limited oversight of county jails. There is no standardization of practices, no forum where the state’s sheriffs trade policy ideas (more on that later). County sheriffs get a total of about $600 million a year in state funds, but jail budgets vary widely. According to a 2016 state analysis, it costs one county $34,000 a year to house an inmate, while another county spends twice that.
The state ought to increase oversight of county jails, starting with a requirement that all county jails report all deaths by suicide. NECIR had to file a public information request and pay a fee in order to collect the data from each county. In order to bring in accountability, suicide data need to be readily available to the public.
Attitude is a big problem too. Sheriffs often acknowledge and decry the high incidence of substance use and mental health disorders in the inmate population. “Sheriffs need to stop complaining about being the largest mental health provider and start acting like it, by getting the resources they need and knocking on doors and publicizing it and working harder,” Lindsay Hayes, a nationally recognized suicide prevention expert, told NECIR.
Then there’s the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, with a line item of $500,000 in the state budget. That’s right — the organization is funded by taxpayers. According to NECIR, the group has not talked about how to address the high incidence of inmate suicides. In fact, a state audit found the association failing even to meet its statutory requirements. The organization was established in 2004 to coordinate the reporting of data on the inmate population in the 14 sheriff’s offices. But the audit revealed the association “did not provide the public with sufficient transparency about inmate populations in various counties, and the Legislature and other state agencies had to expend time and resources to obtain information.”
That’s another area for reform. The sheriffs’ association could be a vehicle to summon experts and tackle the rise in suicides. Ultimately, Massachusetts needs to be watching county jails more closely, and demanding real transparency and accountability from its sheriffs.
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