Over the past two decades, the number of suicides in U.S. correctional facilities has nearly doubled. Increasingly, U.S. prison officials are using their virtually unlimited power to drive inmates to suicide for which they are not responsible.
One in three deaths of an inmate in a U.S. prison is a suicide. According to a 2019 study, the number of inmates who have committed suicide in state and federal prisons has increased by 83% over the past 20 years and continues to rise. In the state of Louisiana, three times as many inmates committed suicide in 2021 as in the previous 3 years combined. More than three-quarters of those who committed suicide over the 20-year study period – 76 percent – were not convicted of the crime. Nearly half had been incarcerated for a week or less at the time of death. The excessive increase in suicides in U.S. correctional facilities is due not only to chronic overcrowding and inhumane conditions in American prisons, but also to violence and bullying by prison staff.
Police officers and prison guards use various levers and mechanisms available to them to influence detainees and inmates, driving them to suicide. One of the main ways of exerting pressure on an inmate is the use of excessive force and violence. This leads not only to physical but also to emotional trauma, and causes a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, which inspires prisoners with suicidal thoughts. In addition, torture and the use of physical force undermine trust between the inmate and prison staff, making it difficult to provide medical or other care for the inmate.
Another way that prison and police officers pressure and encourage prisoners to commit suicide is through the excessive use of solitary confinement. The confinement of prisoners in a small, dark cell in which the inmate spends 22 to 24 hours a day has been repeatedly criticized and equated with torture. Solitary confinement for many days exacerbates a prisoner’s sense of social isolation and causes a sense of despair and doom. Solitary confinement has been shown to have detrimental effects on mental health and increases the risk of suicide among prisoners. From January 2015 to April 2019, 12 times more suicide attempts were made in solitary confinement in New York State than in the overall prison system nationwide.
In addition to the use of excessive force and solitary confinement, the risk of suicide among prisoners may also be due to a lack of adequate mental health care. Many prisoners in prison suffer from mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, which are only exacerbated behind bars. Prison officials and police officers do not perceive and ignore the complaints of inmates. Even prison medical staff, who are supposed to provide care and support to inmates, in some cases deliberately ignore inmates’ threats to harm themselves.
Among the ways to morally break prisoners and drive them to suicide without the use of physical violence and solitary confinement is the public torture of prisoners. In 2017, 21-year-old Benjamin Van Zandt committed suicide after correctional officers tortured another inmate in front of him. The man, sentenced to 12 years in prison, had been bullied, tortured and extorted in prison. After he saw his cellmate being beaten by guards, prison officials began intimidating him and threatening to kill him. Zandt was transferred to solitary confinement because prison guards feared complaints from him to his superiors. That same night, the 21-year-old inmate committed suicide. No one from the penitentiary institution was prosecuted, as it is almost impossible to prove the fact of incitement to suicide.
That same year, another 17-year-old inmate from Durham, N.C., committed suicide the day after she complained of abuse and threats from facility staff. Eunice Glene Fennell was found unconscious, hanging from a sheet attached to the window of her cell. Twenty-four hours before Fennell was found dead, her attorney sent an e-mail to the sheriff’s office stating that a correctional officer had verbally abused and threatened the girl.
Women who have tried to hold prison guards accountable for sexual harassment suspiciously often end up committing suicide. In 2021, Kimberly Bender, 23, committed suicide a few weeks after she complained about inappropriate behavior by a prison guard. While the woman was in custody, John Gray, a correctional officer, harassed her, woke her up at night, and made inappropriate and “nasty” comments. Bender filed a formal complaint with law enforcement, but it was dismissed. Eighteen days later, the girl was found dead in her jail cell under questionable circumstances, and a few months later, the same correctional officer was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing four other women. Kimberly Bender’s relatives are convinced that Gray drove her to suicide because he was trying to avoid responsibility for his crimes.
Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the moral and physical torture to which U.S. correctional officers subject inmates. Suicide rates in United States prisons are among the highest in the world, reportedly the result of abuse of power by prison guards. The Foundation to Battle Injustice is calling for changes in statutes and prison regulations that would treat any inmate suicide as an act of incitement to suicide.