Who's legally responsible for prison and jail suicides? | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin
Pacific Standard
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In 2014, the suicide rate in jail was 50 per 100,000 inmates, compared to the rate of 13 suicides per 100,000 people across the entire U.S. population, writes Pacific Standard — which makes suicide the leading cause of death in jails and prisons. "Despite the empirical links between incarceration and suicide, an obstacle course of prisoner-unfriendly legislation and legal doctrines stand in the path of attempts at holding any individual person or institution accountable. Over the past two and a half decades, these legal barriers have made reforming prison conditions via litigation nearly impossible."

LBJ School Senior Lecturer and criminal justice expert Michele Deitch weighed in with the magazine about the obligations that jails and prisons have to watch over and take care of their prisoners. 

"The Supreme Court established a new standard — 'protection from harm' — with their 1994 ruling in Farmer v. Brennan, says Michele Deitch, an expert in correctional oversight and prison and jail conditions at the University of Texas, and a former federal court monitor.

"'You don't want to hold someone liable for something that they didn't know they were supposed to be doing,' Deitch says. 'But qualified immunity is a huge barrier to bringing lawsuits, no question about that. It's very, very hard to overcome that.'

"Both qualified immunity and deliberate indifference are troubling doctrines for prisoners, Deitch says, because they 'create the perverse incentive for agency officials to stay unaware of what's happening in their own facilities and of what the best practices are, and to stay untrained on these topics.' If a jail that screens for suicide or assault risk is more likely to be held liable if a prisoner dies by suicide then jails might not want to take preventative measures that are in prisoners' interests."