NATIONAL VIEW: Federal prisons have a suicide crisis

THE POINT: They can fix it.

Convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide and mob boss Whitey Bulger’s murder both made headlines as shocking failures of the federal prison system. But the shortcomings that led to these famous men’s deaths weren’t the exception — they were the rule.

The Justice Department’s inspector general recently released a report on the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ manifest difficulty keeping inmates alive. Between 2014 and 2021, the investigation reveals, a total of 344 individuals died by suicide, homicide, drug overdose or other accident. The number has been increasing steadily, even as the prison population has decreased. The majority of these deaths by unnatural causes were suicides; the majority of those suicides involved inmates in single cells. The evidence suggests they were preventable.

It’s not news that the bureau is beset by problems. This summer, the inspector general released a separate report on a surprise inspection conducted at the Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee, a women’s prison. There, inmates dined on moldy bread and rotting vegetables, as well as cereal from bags with insects in them stored in warehouses contaminated with rodent droppings. This disgraceful treatment surely lowers the quality of life of those in residence. But other operational flaws at Tallahassee mirror the ones the report identifies as contributing to avoidable deaths: short staffing among correctional officers; crumbling infrastructure; insufficient coverage by security cameras as well as haphazard screening for contraband.

Some of the missteps the latest report spotlights could be averted by revising department policy. The Bureau of Prisons, for example, has been scrutinizing its rules on single-celling inmates — which, when those individuals are also in restrictive housing, amounts to placing them in solitary confinement. (Bulger, after his stay in a single cell pending a transfer, declared he had “lost the will to live.” ) But no policy update has come, and in multiple instances the inspector general discovered that individuals deemed at risk of self-harm were nonetheless housed alone; one of these inmates died by suicide a day after his placement in a single cell at a transfer center. The bureau ought also to modernize its security camera apparatus — a priority recommendation from the inspector general — and conduct random searches of staff to guard against illicit substances making their way inside prisons’ walls.

Other issues plaguing the country’s prison system aren’t a matter of setting new standards but of adhering to existing ones. More than 100 of the 187 suicides in the report were by inmates in the lowest category of mental health care. The disconnect likely results in part from inadequate training for those conducting assessments; many staff, the report says, didn’t attend the requisite sessions with psychologists. Worse, sometimes those assessments didn’t even take place — either prisoners weren’t evaluated at intake, or they didn’t receive follow-up evaluations even when they exhibited behaviors, such as giving away their possessions or refusing meals, that suggested they were at risk.

Sometimes, lapses in communication led to disaster. One service (say, health services) might recognize an inmate’s condition but fail to tell another (correctional services, for example) — or vice versa. And neglecting to complete searches of inmates’ cells could be fatal. Just as officers claimed they had searched Epstein’s cell but somehow left him enough sheets to hang himself, one stunning story featured in the report is of an inmate found dead with 1,000 pills in his unit — though it was reported searched the previous day. Staff also didn’t conduct rounds as frequently as protocol required. In one instance, following the rules could have allowed patrollers to spot an inmate braiding the rope he eventually used to kill himself.

Perhaps most troubling of all, prisons have no way of knowing the extent of their own deficiencies. For more than one-third of the deaths covered by the report, records were lacking. No wonder: Key information on many of the bureau’s problems is absent. Director Colette Peters, asked on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last month how many additional officers the agency needed to mitigate its personnel crisis, said the bureau will specify the number “very soon” — by October, she expects.

Fixing the bureau’s shortcomings will require sustained focus, which we hope Ms. Peters brings to an institution that has had six directors in as many years. It will also require money from Congress and support from the president. Unlike Jeffrey Epstein and Whitey Bulger, the more than 300 individuals who died preventable deaths in prisons over the past seven years didn’t make the news — but they mattered just the same.

The Washington Post