‘It’s going to require active and ongoing prevention to turn this train around:’ Suicides and drug-related deaths rise in NC jails despite state regulation

More people die of suicide in NC jails than in other states, and the NC jail suicide rate continues to rise
Published: Mar. 25, 2022 at 6:09 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A Disability Rights of North Carolina (DRNC) report shows that suicides in North Carolina jails reached an all-time high in 2020.

More people die of suicide in NC jails than in other states, and the NC jail suicide rate continues to rise.

Twenty-one people committed suicide in NC jails in 2020 and suicide and drug-related deaths add up to 32 deaths. Suicide rates in NC jails remain higher than in the general population: during 2019 and 2020, the suicide rate of people in jails was nine times that of the rest of the population.

“We really feel like, at the bare minimum, folks in the community should be confident that their jails are not dangerous places for the folks that are in custody,” said Disability Rights North Carolina attorney Luke Woolard.

Overall, 56 people died in the custody of North Carolina jails in 2020. Back in 2013, that number was 22.

The DRNC identified the most notable issues as inadequate medical screening, failure to meet state observation standards, failure to provide medical care, and failure to move people to more advanced care.

The DRNC recommends the following:

  1. “Pass Legislation to provide more transparency about the conditions of NC jails
  2. Adequately fund the jail regulation unit at the DHSR
  3. Require the creation of Suicide Prevention Programs that are robust and systematic
  4. Provide adequate medical care for incarcerated people
  5. Engage in a community Stepping Up campaign.”

As opposed to prisons which typically carry out longer sentences, jails hold people who have not yet been been convicted, people who are serving shorter sentences and people serving misdemeanor sentences. People who are assigned bail but cannot afford it must wait in jail for trial regardless of whether or not they are convicted of the crime. Counties operate jails and the State operates prisons.

Accounts of jail suicides indicate that staff do not consistently check cells every 30 minutes as required by state law. Suicide precautions also have been inconsistent: Five people died by suicide soon after being taken off suicide precautions and 13 more took their life after passing suicide prevention screening.

Attorneys with Disability Rights North Carolina say, that’s not enough.

“They need to increase their training, increase their resources, increase their response to people when they’re having a crisis in the jail to get them out of the facilities,” said attorney Susan Pollitt.

The sheriff’s office in Brunswick County has taken several additional measures since 2020.

Inmates are separated for two weeks to undergo mental health screenings, and those who are deemed at risk, are checked on at least six times per hour.

Emily Flax with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement to WECT that their new policies have prevented nearly a dozen suicides in that county’s jail.

She also said, if someone wants to hurt themselves, they will. However, it’s their job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Pollitt said more training is needed.

“It’s going to require ongoing and active prevention to turn this train around,” Pollitt said.

Advocacy groups and sheriff’s office officials are on the same page when it comes to mental health. They say, awareness is key.

“Folks should not have to worry about if a loved one or a friend gets arrested, that they’re going into an incredibly dangerous situation where they may die from the lack of adequate health care,” said Woollard.

Another statistic: forced substance withdrawal resulted in 11 deaths. The American Psychiatric Association found “[h]alf of all individuals who complete suicide in lockups and detention facilities have a history of substance abuse.”

You can read the full report on the DRNC website.

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