More inmates died of suicide than any other cause in 2020, report shows
In North Carolina jails in 2020, there were more deaths by suicide – 21 – than by any other cause, according to an analysis by Disability Rights NC.
Across the state, there were 56 total deaths due to suicide, illness or injury in North Carolina jails. Of those, 32 were suicide or substance use-related, including overdose or withdrawal. That's the highest total since Disability Rights NC, a legal advocacy organization, began tracking these numbers in 2013.
"These appalling in-custody deaths are the direct result of North Carolina's continued failure to improve mental health and substance use services in North Carolina jails and communities," said Susan H. Pollitt, the Disability Rights Criminal Justice Supervising Attorney. "We cannot allow this inhumane suffering and loss of life to continue when there are remedies that can be affordably and effectively implemented."
The report links these deaths, which it calls "entirely preventable," to inadequate access to care, especially mental health care. Jails house some of the most vulnerable people in society, including those experiencing a mental health crisis.
"Too many people are caught in the criminal justice system due to untreated or insufficiently treated mental health disabilities and substance use," according to the report.
Sheriff's offices oversee county jails, and Sheriff's Association Executive Vice President Eddie Caldwell says the association agrees that jails are not the facility for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
"However, currently our county jails have become facilities of last resort for persons who have these medical needs who also commit crimes," Caldwell said, adding that the Sheriff's Association supports the "establishment of proper care facilities for persons with acute mental health and substance use disorders when those persons can be placed in such proper care facilities without jeopardizing the public safety of our communities."
In addition to better care facilities, Disability Rights wants to see more transparency. Currently, only deaths are required to be reported, but Disability Rights says attempted suicides and other events that result in physical or psychological harm should also be reported to give advocates like them more complete data about conditions inside jails.