• Written by Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, Amherst College

Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged suicide[1] in New York’s Metropolitan Correction Center on Aug. 10 has brought new attention to the troubling reality of inmates who kill themselves in America’s jails and prisons[2].

Suicide is, of course, a serious problem more generally. In 2017, it was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.[3], claiming the lives of over 47,000 people. Today, it takes twice as many American lives as homicide.

But, as someone who teaches and writes[4] about punishment and imprisonment in the U.S., I find something particularly troubling about prison suicide.

American law recognizes[5] a “special relationship” between the jailer and the prisoner, meaning that jailers have a legal responsibility to protect prisoners from harm – including self harm.

So suicide in jails and prisons is more than a personal tragedy. It often indicates a failure in the duty imposed on prison officials[6].

It also can complicate the pursuit of justice[7]. When someone awaiting trial ends their life, crime victims are deprived of the opportunity to have the perpetrator brought to justice. And, when someone who has already been tried and convicted commits suicide, that act impedes the public’s legitimate interest in seeing a punishment fully carried out.

When prison suicides make headlines

Epstein’s death was not the first to draw attention to the issue of suicide inside of American jails and prisons[8].

In 2015, the death of Sandra Bland[9], a young African-American woman who hanged herself in a Texas jail, also made national headlines.

Bland had been stopped[10] for failing to signal a lane change and was arrested and jailed for an alleged assault on a public officer.

The circumstances surrounding her death, like those surrounding Epstein’s death, were mysterious. That mystery was not resolved when Bland’s family filed a wrongful death suit[11] and eventually accepted a monetary settlement of US$1.9 million.

Such litigation[12] is quite common following a jail or prison suicide[13], although rarely with the outcome that was reached in the case of Sandra Bland’s family.

Because families either settle or generally don’t prevail if their case goes to trial, there is little pressure from the courts to address suicides among the incarcerated. And, except in cases where there is notoriety, there is also little public concern about such events.

Who is responsible when an inmate commits suicide? An exterior view of the Metropolitan Correctional Center jail, where financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon[14]

Suicide in American jails and prisons

Getting a handle on the extent of suicide in jails and prisons is not easy. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is responsible for collecting data on deaths in correctional institutions across the nation[15], has not made public any new information since 2016.

But data from 2014[16] shows the magnitude of the suicide problem. In that year, 372 inmates killed themselves in local jails, resulting in a suicide rate of 50 deaths per 100,000 inmates.

A study done by the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and Alternatives found that such suicides[17] are “evenly distributed from the first few days of confinement to over several months of confinement, many suicides occurred during waking hours, most inmates were not under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of death, and many suicides occurred in close proximity to a court hearing.”

The large number of suicides in American jails occurs, in part, because they now house many people who, in the past, would have been sent to mental institutions[18].

Suicide in jails also arises from the fact that those who are accused of a crime and cannot make bail are first sent there while awaiting trial. As Thomas White, an expert on suicide among incarcerated persons, observes[19], by the time people are serving their prison sentence, “the shock has worn off.”

The rate at which people kill themselves in jails is, as the AP reported in June[20], “2 ½ times the rate of suicides in state prisons and about 3 ½ times that of the general population.”

Moreover, because they have fewer staff per inmate and generally worse conditions, those rates are higher in state[21] than in federal prisons.

In jails and prisons at both the state and federal level, the suicide rate was increasing[22] when the Justice Department last reported its data from 2014.

Since the U.S. is the worldwide leader in incarceration[23], one might expect that it would also lead the world in suicides behind bars. But, in fact, it does not[24]. The O’Neil Institute at Georgetown University reports that the U.S. has a lower rate of prison suicides[25] than many Western European and Nordic countries where the incidence of mental illness and substance abuse[26] among prisoners is even higher than it is in the U.S.

Who is responsible when an inmate commits suicide? A poster targeting suicidal inmates is seen at the California Medical Facility prison in Vacaville, California. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson[27]

A toxic brew

People who kill themselves in jails and prisons often suffer from serious mental health and personal problems that would challenge any institution.

U.S. jails and prisons[28] are often overcrowded[29] and understaffed[30].

Budgets for mental health services[31] have been trimmed almost everywhere.

Correctional officers are not trained[32] to deal effectively with the problems that inmates manifest on a daily basis. Their work is so stressful that their suicide rates[33] are themselves a source of real concern.

And, as the public learned in the Epstein case, leaving someone alone in a cell[34] is a key driver of jail and prison suicides.

The problem in that case seems to have been a lack of supervision or surveillance, but Epstein was also at risk of suicide because his cellmate had been transferred out of their shared unit in violation of the jail’s procedure. A 2007 report from the Central New York Psychiatric Center[35] notes, “Almost all suicides in state prisons occur in single cells as opposed to in dormitories or double-bunked cells. Suicide is a very private act, and whether it occurs in a hospital, in the free community, or in prison, it almost always occurs when the person is alone.”

As U.S. prisons increasingly turn to isolation as a principle of punishment, or to single-cell disciplinary housing, it should not be surprising that the incidence of suicide would rise[36].

In my view, the U.S. owes it those whom it incarcerates to do something about the problem of suicide.


  1. ^ Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged suicide (
  2. ^ inmates who kill themselves in America’s jails and prisons (
  3. ^ 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. (
  4. ^ someone who teaches and writes (
  5. ^ American law recognizes (
  6. ^ the duty imposed on prison officials (
  7. ^ the pursuit of justice (
  8. ^ the issue of suicide inside of American jails and prisons (
  9. ^ Sandra Bland (
  10. ^ Bland had been stopped (
  11. ^ filed a wrongful death suit (
  12. ^ Such litigation (
  13. ^ following a jail or prison suicide (
  14. ^ REUTERS/Jeenah Moon (
  15. ^ collecting data on deaths in correctional institutions across the nation (
  16. ^ data from 2014 (
  17. ^ such suicides (
  18. ^ would have been sent to mental institutions (
  19. ^ As Thomas White, an expert on suicide among incarcerated persons, observes (
  20. ^ as the AP reported in June (
  21. ^ higher in state (
  22. ^ was increasing (
  23. ^ the worldwide leader in incarceration (
  24. ^ it does not (
  25. ^ lower rate of prison suicides (
  26. ^ incidence of mental illness and substance abuse (
  27. ^ REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (
  28. ^ U.S. jails and prisons (
  29. ^ overcrowded (
  30. ^ understaffed (
  31. ^ mental health services (
  32. ^ Correctional officers are not trained (
  33. ^ their suicide rates (
  34. ^ leaving someone alone in a cell (
  35. ^ A 2007 report from the Central New York Psychiatric Center (
  36. ^ incidence of suicide would rise (

Authors: Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, Amherst College

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Violin ReEnvisioned

Falling in love with music so young was more than transformative. Music became the lead sheet of my life; challenging me to navigate changes with grace, maintain a steady rhythmic groove, dynami...

Chelsey Green - avatar Chelsey Green

Kadda Sheekoff Win Best Urban Song For "All My Life"

Singer Kadda Sheekoff have emerged as the toast of the 2020 Songdew Pause&Play. Obviously, there are many composers who deserve the award more than Kadda Sheekoff, but the decision of the S...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

A Musical Journey: The Authentic Ted Cline

Ted Cline was born in 1962 as the 11th of 13 children.  His parents were hard-working tobacco share-croppers in Weston, Missouri. By the time he was eleven, he was sneaking downstairs to play his...

Ted Cline - avatar Ted Cline

Angela Predhomme - My Musical Journey

Determined to “make it” in the music industry as a songwriter, I meticulously crafted the best songs I could and pitched them to industry gatekeepers. “THIS one’s got to be IT,” I thought. But ala...

Angela Predhomme - avatar Angela Predhomme

GREYE: “So Far So Good”

“So Far So Good” After seven plus years firing up venues up and down the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Midwest to the breakneck tune of 90-110 annual shows, it’s definitely been jarring fo...

News Company - avatar News Company

The life and times of Wendy Moten

I never thought I would be in the music business, much less a recording artist. I never saw it coming. I thought I'd be a corporate attorney or something like that. Little did I know that anothe...

Wendy Moten - avatar Wendy Moten

CARY PARK “You Matter to Me”

“You Matter to Me” In any other time, Cary Park’s stunning new single “You Matter to Me” might be just another beautiful heartfelt love song, an outpouring of personal affection towards a cheri...

News Company - avatar News Company

TED CLINE ... Country Music Done Right

Country Music Done Right When Ted Cline uses the phrase “Country Music Done Right” to describe his engaging vibe, the Kansas City area-based singer/songwriter isn’t simply being crafty or clev...

News Company - avatar News Company

LAMONT DOZIER, JR. “Why Can’t We Be Lovers”/”I’m Gonna Take My Time”

When it comes to enduring musical legacies, it’s always inspiring when the melodic, grooving evergreen apples drop so close to the tree. The son and namesake of legendary singer, songwriter and re...

News Company - avatar News Company

Metropolitan Business News


In 2019, just as his multi-faceted career was taking off, Thorn Castillo heard Robert Downey Jr. offer a sage bit of advice during an interview on photographer/director Sam Jones’ acclaimed multi-...

News Company - avatar News Company

New Research Highlights Opportunities for Sports Betting

Revenue Stream for Sports’ Post-COVID-19 Recovery Strategies New Rochelle, NY, June 1, 2020— Twenty-four states have now legalized sports betting, with more states considering legalization la...

Len Stein - avatar Len Stein

How to make overseas transfers easier?

Mainstream banks can charge as much as $20 just to process a basic international money transfer. Fortunately, today people are not doomed to handling personal finances only through mainstream gl...

News Company - avatar News Company

The flourishing international market of fragrance and perfume

There is something special and unique about the art of fragrance. This is a big world and there are quite literally a lot of smells around at any given time. In fact, as one of the five human senses i...

News Company - avatar News Company

Impact of good marketing on sales

Sales and marketing are brothers as they go hand and in hand. The job of both of these departments is to generate revenue so that an organization can make money. A company that does not generate rev...

News Company - avatar News Company

7 effective tips for increasing sales in retail

It seems that retailers have drawn a difficult lot in the 21st century: competition from online retail is growing steadily. After all, Internet retailers can sell your products at significantly lowe...

News Company - avatar News Company



Are you planning to go on a trip? Possibly, you do not know what things are most necessary on a trip. In this article, we will guide you through some important tips. These tips help you to...

News Company - avatar News Company

New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt