Suicide Risk Among Justice-Impacted People

Christina Knight | October 24, 2022

See more about the event, below.


Understanding Suicide Among the Justice-Impacted, an online event. October 27, 2022, 1:45-2:45 p.m.
Free registration

It is well established that those who have recognized or unrecognized mental health issues are likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system; and for those in good health who become incarcerated, to see their mental health deteriorate. Even after being freed from incarceration, stigma and lack of work opportunities or income can drain a person’s well being. Suicide is a risk among justice-impacted people.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) in New York City reports that in fiscal year 2022 (July 2021 through June 30, 2022), 50% of the average daily population in its prison facilities had a mental health diagnoses; 16.2% of those cases were a “serious mental health” diagnosis.”

Seven years ago, the American Psychological Association shared the National Research Council report’s findings on mental illness and incarceration, which was presented to the White House at the time. The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s — which shut down large treatment facilities for the mentally ill — coupled with the lack of community resources to treat them, resulted in some people going to prisons and jails instead. “One study found this trend accounts for about 7% of prison population growth from 1980 to 2000 — representing 40,000 to 72,000 people in prisons who would likely have been in mental hospitals in the past.”

Self-harm while in custody is always a heightened risk. In her essay for The WNET Group’s Community Connections series this June, author Sylvia A. Harvey focused on how incarceration anywhere impacts women and mothers:

Even with their expansion and the development of women’s facilities, they rarely meet the needs of womenResearch indicates women in jails report higher rates of mental health issues when compared to men, with 1 in 3 experiencing “serious psychological distress.” More than 75 percent of women have experienced abuse and violence at the hands of men prior to their incarceration. Once confined, their traumas are often unaddressed. Those circumstances can lead to deadly outcomes: when the  mental health problems of incarcerated women go untreated,  the women are at a greater risk of suicide. (Read further on THIRTEEN.org)

Before the pandemic, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that illnesses of all types accounted for nearly half of deaths in local jails (553 or 46%) in 2019, but suicide was the leading single cause of death in local jails (355 deaths or 30% of all deaths).

Dr. Josephine Wonsun Hahn, the former research director of Racial Equity and Fairness at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice writes for the Brennan Center for Justice: “It is understandable that jail may in fact exacerbate a person’s mental illness, and quickly. Indeed, according to the Justice Department, most jail suicides happen soon after admission, with nearly half of suicides occurring within seven days of arrival. A significant proportion of jail suicides — 77 percent — occur by detained people who are charged but not convicted of any crime and are therefore legally presumed innocent.”

Six of the seven DOC housing facilities in New York City are on Rikers Island, where many people who have been arrested are held while waiting for a trial, or even for a jury to determine whether there is cause to put them on trial. Though we have heard the phrase, “the right to a speedy trial,” many people remain at Rikers for years, as detailed in this article by Reuven Blau for The City, a nonprofit digital news platform covering New York City.

Mental Health Stressors of Incarceration

Articles this fall by The Gothamist (Matt Katz) and The Queens Daily Eagle (Jacob Kaye) show how suicides have risen in 2022 at facilities run by The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC), and that staffing issues have resulted in failure to complete mandatory training in suicide prevention.

The DOC summarizes in NYC Mayor’s Management Report September 2022 the following increase in stressful conditions for both those held in custody and staff:

The incarcerated population has steadily risen despite an initial decrease at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, far surpassing population projections made prior to the pandemic. The average daily population increased by 12 percent between Fiscal 2021 and 2022. New admissions increased by 10 percent during this reporting period and backlog in the court system resulting from the pandemic has caused many individuals to linger in DOC custody for substantially longer than they otherwise would have. Average length of stay has increased from 87 days in Fiscal 2021 to 120 days in Fiscal 2022, and nearly 30 percent of the population has been in custody for more than a year, with some having been in custody for three years or more. Data shows that the longer one remains in custody, the likelihood increases that they will be involved in a violent incident. – NYC Mayor’s Management Report September 2022, pg 83

The NYC Health + Hospitals/Correctional Health Services (CHS) is the agency that provides medical and mental health services for individuals in DOC custody.  While one may think of suicide as being driven by mental illness and depression, there are cases where deciding to kill oneself seems a desperate escape from danger. Kevin Bryan, 35, killed himself it at Rikers in September, immediately after fleeing inmates who were beating him (see The Queens Daily Eagle reporting).

Learn More, Together

Understanding Suicide Among the Justice-Impacted, an online event.
October 27, 2022, 1:45-2:45 p.m.
Free registration

Join THIRTEEN and John Jay College of Criminal Justice to explore suicide among justice-impacted people with excerpts from the new documentary Facing Suicide and the special Learning to Live: The Resilient Path After Prison, produced by Second Chance Studios, a nonprofit digital media company that trains and employs formerly incarcerated individuals.

After the film excerpts are screened, a conversation will follow with Gerard W. Bryant, Ph.D. (Director of Counseling Services, Wellness Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice), Sarah Jamgotch, LMSW (Programs Manager, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention NYC Chapter), Stephen “Smoke” Thomas (Community Coordinator at D.R.U.M.), and Rev. Sharon White-Harrigan (Executive Director of WCJA), moderated by Nicole Lewis (Engagement Editor, The Marshall Project).

THIRTEEN and John Jay College of Criminal Justice are committed to creating inclusive spaces. If you plan to attend the event and need to request a reasonable accommodation, please contact Mary Burke at burkem@wnet.org.

Facing Suicide, a new documentary and impact campaign from Twin Cities PBS, explores the stories of Americans impacted by suicide, and journeys to the frontlines of medical and scientific research to meet those who are working to help people at risk. Timely and informative, the project aims to elevate and destigmatize the topic of suicide, empowering audiences and communities with prevention strategies. Screen the full film at pbs.org/facingsuicide, on the PBS Video app, or on the PBS YouTube Channel.

Learning to Live: The Resilient Path After Prison tells the story of Stephen “Smoke” Thomas and his experience with incarceration, suicidal ideation and mental health. To produce the film, The WNET Group partnered with Second Chance Studios, a nonprofit that provides media training and job placement to formerly incarcerated individuals, to explore the topic of suicide within the justice-involved community. Guided by their own experiences and information from partner organizations working at the intersection of reentry and mental health, Second Chance Studios fellows received hands-on professional development as they actively participated in all aspects of the production process. Visit pbs.org/chasingthedream to screen Learning to Live: The Resilient Path After Prison.

If you are thinking about suicide or if you or someone you know is in emotional crisis, call or text 988 or visit chat988lifeline.org any time for confidential, free crisis support.