Accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s death in a New York City jail over the weekend has spurred endless conspiracy theories.
But the investigation into the wealthy financier’s death by apparent suicide is likely to shine a light on another grim reality of the U.S. prison system — prisoner deaths, whether by suicide or perhaps more frequently drug overdose, are not uncommon and many times preventable.
Criminal-justice experts say systemic factors such as inattention, understaffing, or inadequate training play a role in the lingering problem of suicides and drug overdoses in detention centers across the country.
Who cares, some might ask. We all should. Apart from the obvious moral responsibility, prisoner deaths often result in costly lawsuits.
According to Lindsay Hayes, project director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, hundreds of individuals are thought to commit suicide each year in jails throughout the country, and suicide is still believed to be the leading cause of death in such facilities.
It is something to think about as Franklin County embarks on construction of a new jail that taxpayers will fund to the tune of nearly $30 million. Suicide or overdose deaths haven’t been an acute problem here but the challenge of preventing them is a never-ending battle.
The last suicide death in the Franklin County jail occurred in 2016. The inmate who died faced a manslaughter charge in connection with the death of another man to whom he allegedly supplied heroin.
Earlier this year, three female inmates at the jail had to be taken to the hospital after they overdosed on heroin. Jail officials believe one of the inmates who overdosed smuggled heroin into the jail in a body cavity. All three women survived — they were lucky.
Our jail isn’t immune from these issues, no detention center is whether it is a county, state or federal facility. St. Louis County is reviewing its procedures following four deaths in its jail this year. At least one of those deaths involved an inmate who had a history of heroin use. Some reports say staff inattention played a role in each fatality.
St. Louis Public Radio reported that Missouri prison overdoses were up 66 percent by April of this year compared to the same time last year. At least five inmates have died in Missouri prisons over the past two years after taking controlled substances like heroin, fentanyl and synthetic cannabinoids.
One of those deaths involved a man incarcerated at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific who overdosed on synthetic cannabinoids, also known as K2 or spice last September.
The effort to keep drugs out of prisons is nothing new. Nor are efforts to prevent jail suicides. They remain a sad and unfortunate aspect of life in U.S. jails.