Prison suicide a disturbing trend, regardless of what you think about Ariel Castro


“Good, strong shoe laces should be available day or night to all inmates who want them.”

“I personally do NOT see a problem here … saves us all money and prison space … go for it, losers!!!”

The vitriol of social media never fails. News that Cleveland kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro hanged himself tipped off an avalanche. Much of it like these “good riddance” comments.

It’s difficult to muster much, if any, sympathy for Castro. He kept Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight as imprisoned as sexual playthings for more than a decade. His convictions included kidnapping, rape and murder by causing the deaths of at least two unborn babies after he impregnated one of the women.

The coward plea-bargained to escape the death penalty, only to impose it on himself. And now this final action ensured that he’d never serve more than a few months behind bars, a fraction of what he inflicted on the three women.

From that perspective, his suicide is galling because it is a slap in the face to justice.

But this is where the conversation needs to turn away from just Castro. Because his suicide highlighted a little known fact about American prisons: More inmates die by suicide than murder, overdose and accidents combined.

Again, set aside the public’s penchant for vengeance in this case. The vast majority of prisoners that experts pinpoint as at-risk to commit suicide are nowhere near as depraved as Castro.

Prison serves more purposes than the most obvious — protecting the rest of society from dangerous criminals. Incarceration is also intended to rehabilitate, to punish, and to do justice to victims by imposing an appropriate level of suffering on the prisoner by taking the rights and privileges of freedom. None of those ends are met with a suicide.

According to Justice Department, 185 inmates in state prisons committed suicide in 2011, which is 14 suicides per 100,000 inmates. People are far more likely to die of medical illnesses in state custody than anything, with cancer and heart disease the leading causes.

But when suicide alone is looked at, there are wide disparities state-to-state in the percentage of prison deaths that can be attributed to suicide.

Rhode Island ranked high, with 16 suicides between 2001 and 2011, which accounted for 21.3 percent of its deaths. Alaska had 18 prison suicides in the same period, accounting for 18 percent of all deaths. At the other end were states like Florida with 75 suicides (2.8 percent of inmate deaths), Alabama with 15 suicides (1.8 percent of inmate deaths). Those disparities are remarkable, and they deserve more study.

In addition to state prison suicides, 310 other inmates took their own lives in local jails in 2011, which figures out to a rate of 43 suicides per 100,000 prisoners.

A 2007 study created profiles of those more likely to commit suicide, and it’s disturbing. These poor souls are not the sort of people that most would wish ill upon. Pre-trial inmates were identified among those highly at risk for suicide, not surprising when their descriptions unfold. This group tends to be male and young, 20-25 years old. They aren’t married, this is their first offense and it’s usually for a relatively minor substance abuse violation. In fact, this category of inmate is often still intoxicated when they take their life.

In fact, juvenile offenders, especially when they are put in adult facilities, are at very high risk.

Given the prevalence of mental health problems in the nation’s prisons, some of this might not be all that surprising. But it’s doubtful that the deaths of these less notable inmates will ever receive the level of publicity and scrutiny given Castro’s death. Already, two separate inquires have been launched by Ohio authorities.

If the death of their torturer gives any solace to Berry, DeJesus and Knight, so be it.

But the words and wishes of Knight ring with increased poignancy now: “You will die a little everyday as you think about the 11 years and atrocities you inflicted on us,” she told Castro at his sentencing of life plus 1,000 years.

Castro, in committing suicide, escaped that sentence.

©2013 The Kansas City Star

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