America’s Out-of-Control Jail Culture

Recent suicides in Chicago’s jails are emblematic of a much larger problem.

Jail inmates in Chicago pressing hands against glass
Chicago's jails have a long history of negligence in safeguarding inmates, but they aren't alone. (Photo: Frank Polich/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

On November 17, 2011, Develt Bradford, accused of shooting a 67-year-old woman during a botched robbery attempt, was found hung to death with his own pajamas in Chicago’s Area 2 jail. Three days later, in the exact same part of the jail, on the exact same shift, Melvin Woods, a 62-year-old man arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, was found hanged to death with his own underwear. Investigators ruled the deaths suicides, but jail cameras positioned to capture the two incidents were all either not working or turned off. Guards who were supposed to be patrolling the facility were nowhere to be found.

The torture of foreign terrorists garners plenty of media attention, but when the inmates being beaten or neglected are our own, the issue is largely ignored. 

“It’s well known that people newly admitted to jail are prone to suicide,” Margaret Winter, executive director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, tells TakePart. “It’s crucial that guards go on regular watch. So if you have multiple suicides over a short period of time, something has gone horribly wrong.

“American jails have always been exceedingly violent, but a big factor that is increasing jail violence is overcrowding,” says Winter. “The more people stuffed into jail, the quality of supervision deteriorates. There’s more squalor, less mental health care and greater tension among security staff. And greater fear among inmates because there’s less supervison. All of those factors tend to increase the level of despair, which can lead to suicide.”

Statistics aren’t easy to come by in this arena. Jail suicides only started being tallied in 2000 with the passage of the Deaths in Custody Reporting program. While it’s difficult to gauge the current suicide rate from a historical perspective, more recent numbers tell a grim story: The U.S. inmate suicide rate is currently 36 per 100,000 inmates, which is more than three times higher than the 2007 national average—11.7 per 100,000.

Americans have a profound sense of Schadenfreude when it comes to jail and prison violence. The torture of foreign terrorists garners plenty of media attention, but when the inmates being beaten or neglected are our own, the issue is largely ignored. “If they’re on the inside,” goes the thinking, “they deserve whatever comes to them.”

If that’s your mindset, it’s worth noting the distinction between prison and jail. Prisons are reserved for inmates convicted of serious crimes. Jails contain convicts as well, but more often they’re holding tanks for the publicly intoxicated or those awaiting trial—where you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Chicago’s Area 2 facility, where these suicides took place, is the same jail where 15 years ago police shocked, burned and generally tortured African-American inmates into confessions.

In Los Angeles County, jail facilities run by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have had so much deputy-on-inmate violence they’ve been under a federal consent decree since 1985. Since that time, an ACLU monitor has been installed in the jails to keep watch against the unconstitutional abuse or neglect of inmates. And yet the violence has continued unabated. In early 2011, deputies in L.A.’s Twin Towers jail beat a man into unconsciousness, directly in front of the jail’s monitor, and continued beating him long after he was “limp like he was a mannequin.”

Less severe but still disturbing incidents recently took place in San Diego, where Occupy Wall Street activists arrested during an October 19 protest were forced to sit handcuffed for up to eight hours with no access to bathroom facilities. Arresting San Diego sheriff’s deputies told the protesters to go in their pants. Many did, with one woman defecating herself.Weeks later, deputies in Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail gang-stomped and pepper sprayed a man inside the jail who wasn’t even an inmate—he was visiting his brother.

Compassion for the guilty doesn’t come easily to Americans. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that jails across the country are out of control—that our jailers lack sufficient public oversight. For anyone out there feeling holier than thou about the issue of jail violence and neglect, it’s worth keeping in mind: we’re all just one protest, one unpaid moving violation, one drink too many away from a trip to jail.

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