Almost half of the deaths in North Carolina jails over the last four years have been suicides. That’s the finding of a new report by Disability Rights North Carolina that lists suicide as the leading cause of death behind barsin the Tar Heel State.
At 46 percent, the suicide rate exceeds the national average of 35 percent.
Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights N.C., says the lack of state mental-health services and local funding make it difficult to properly address the problem.
“If we are having difficulty with state-operated mental-health programs and meeting the needs, you can imagine that the counties are not equipped to deal with this,” she says. “People who work in the jails aren’t trained mental-health providers.”
Smith attributes the high rate to lax standards for identification and treatment of people with mental-health issues. The state doesn’t require standardized mental-health screenings or suicide-prevention programs behind bars. The report recommends jails have written suicide-prevention policies, staff training, screening during the intake process and suicide-resistant cells.
Smith says another issue contributing to the high suicide rate among people who are incarcerated is the larger lack of mental-health services available in North Carolina.
“People go to jail and there’s an assumption that they committed a crime, and so this is part of their punishment,” she explains. “But many people, the people that we’re concerned about, are going to jail because they aren’t getting appropriate services.”
Disability Rights N.C. found that 80 percent of people who take their own lives in jail are men, with the highest rates among white men and white women.