Suicide Attempts, Threats Indicate Widespread Mental Illness in D.C. Jails

By Scott MacFarlane
|  Monday, Jun 16, 2014  |  Updated 6:56 AM EDT
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A News4 I-team investigation reveals a life-and-death struggle inside D.C. jails. There have been dozens of suicide attempts in the past year. As part of our Changing Minds series on mental health, the I-Team's Scott MacFarlane reveals how jails are working to protect inmates from themselves.

Scott MacFarlane

A News4 I-team investigation reveals a life-and-death struggle inside D.C. jails. There have been dozens of suicide attempts in the past year. As part of our Changing Minds series on mental health, the I-Team's Scott MacFarlane reveals how jails are working to protect inmates from themselves.

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More than 70 inmates of Washington DC city jails have attempted or threatened suicide since September, according to records obtained by the News4 I-Team. None of them was successful, but city officials said the frequency of suicide attempts are an indication of widespread mental illness inside local lockups.

The attempts also place additional pressure on D.C. correctional officials, who have already ordered changes inside city jails in the wake of a series of inmate suicides in 2013.

“Our jails and prisons, including here in the District, have started to become ‘psychiatric hospitals’ staffed with an insufficient number of mental health professionals,” D.C. Department of Corrections Director Thomas Faust said. “There is a critical need for alternatives regarding mental illness and the need to shift the responsibility of untreated mental illness out of the criminal justice system.”

Four inmate suicides, in quick succession, in 2013 put jail administrators under scrutiny and triggered a series of emails from Faust to industry experts. In one of those emails, which were obtained by the News4 I-Team, Faust wrote to a correctional industry consultant, "We have experienced our 3rd inmate suicide at our main facility in just the last 6 weeks ... by hanging. ... As you can imagine, we will get beat up on this by press."

In late 2013, the agency ordered physical changes inside the main city lockup in southeast D.C. Staff reduced the number of razors it distributed to inmates. They also removed wall hangings and added mesh coverings to block vents to safeguard against “choking points” for inmates attempting to hang themselves.

The department also announced plans to produce more “suicide-resistant” jail cells, which include stripped bedding and larger windows for guards to monitor the inmates

The agency said it is also planning to hire three new mental health professionals to manage inmates with mental health disorders.

Agency records, obtained by the I-Team, show 40 percent of inmates in the city suffer some form of mental illness.

“Most local jails do not have the resources to provide wholly adequate psychiatric services,” Faust said.

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