The number of incarcerated people who are attempting suicide and killing themselves inside Maricopa County jail facilities is spiking this year, according to internal records obtained by Phoenix New Times.
Between January and April of 2021, five jail inmates killed themselves, while 47 suicide attempts were recorded during that same time frame, per the records. There were 17 attempted suicides in March alone. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office manages five jails, all in Phoenix.
Not only is the total number of inmates who killed themselves already higher than last year, when three committed suicide, but attempted suicides are on pace to exceed 2020's total of 100 if the trend holds. Just two inmates killed themselves in 2019.
The records come from a running tally of critical incidents inside county jails dubbed "Managing For Results," which correctional staff supervisors update after every shift. They were leaked to Phoenix New Times by an MCSO staffer who was concerned about the increase in suicide attempts. The staffer declined to be named out of fear of retribution.
When reached for comment, MCSO spokesperson Norma Gutierrez-Deorta disputed the numbers in the records. In an email, she claimed that there were only two suicides and two attempted suicides in 2021. Similarly, she wrote that there were four suicide attempts and two suicides in 2020. After being presented with the leaked records, Gutierrez-Deorta wrote that she "had to do some research" on the issue. When contacted again for comment, she wrote, "it’s going to take some time to go through our records."
The MCSO source who provided the records scoffed at the numbers provided by Gutierrez-Deorta, calling them "absolutely ridiculous."
"If we had that few suicides and suicide attempts within the jail system, we would be leading the nation in suicide prevention. And that’s just not the case," the source said. "The numbers speak for themselves."
The frequency of suicide attempts inside local jails has gotten so bad that MCSO has created roving suicide-watch positions to conduct welfare checks on inmates, according to the MCSO source and an internal email shared with Phoenix New Times.
Gutierrez-Deorta confirmed the new positions, writing in an email that Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone "authorized additional overtime" to fund a "position that will increase observation and interaction with the inmate population to help more quickly identify inmates that may be in crisis (physical/mental) but do not self-disclose that need."
When asked why Penzone would authorize the overtime for the new positions if, as she claimed, suicide attempts are low and decreasing, Gutierrez-Deorta dodged the question.
"We can’t compare 2020 to 2021 when 2021 is not over yet, but we are working to prevent these situations as we don’t want anyone going through this under our custody and want to help them as much as we can," she wrote.
The records also shed light on the grim details surrounding inmate suicides. One inmate in the Lower Buckeye Jail was found in mid-January "attempting self-harm by asphyxiation" with an MCSO-issued towel tied around his neck, while another cut his wrists with pieces of glass. Many used bedsheets to try to hang themselves.
Donna Leon Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform and a former judge, ties the spike in attempted suicides and deaths to the conditions that inmates faced inside county jails during the COVID-19 pandemic and insufficient mental health care. She said that her organization has heard from inmates in Maricopa County jails who have expressed anxiety about the high risk of contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated and the fact that trials were delayed. The jails were hotspots for severe COVID-19 outbreaks; MCSO is currently being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona for allegedly failing to follow proper pandemic protocols.
"There’s been a very sharp increase in despair and depression," she said. "Although jail is a depressing place to begin with, it has become a colossal human pit of despair."
"They are fearful because their conditions of living and their ability to protect themselves from a dangerous pandemic is so limited," Hamm added. "They feel completely helpless, and that morphs into hopelessness."
In an email, MCSO spokesperson Gutierrez-Deorta acknowledged the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on inmates' mental health. She cited suicide prevention training that MCSO detention officers receive, as well as "hanging drills." Sheriff Penzone has also ordered MCSO staff to create a workgroup to "address the mental health needs of the inmate population" as the pandemic drags on.
"The relationship between [the] cause and the effect of the CDC protocols/recommendations to address the Covid Pandemic on the mental health of our community members (including those in custody) is still being determined by knowledgeable public and private entities," she wrote. "Within our jails, there is also a suspension in volunteer-based programs (faith and social) to interact with inmates because of CDC recommended protocols regarding social distancing and non-contact with confined populations like prisons, jails."
The trend of increasing inmate suicides is "alarming," said Joe Clure, the executive director of the Arizona Police Association, which represents correctional officers working in Maricopa County Jails. He said that chronic understaffing at county jails and state prisons is a major contributor to inmate suicides.
"With that kind of staffing levels that are so deficient, it allows more inmates to have unmonitored, unsupervised time to carry out these acts of harm whereas they otherwise might not be able to," he said. "I would say that the spike is significant and if the trend continues, it will be significantly greater year-to-year."
Resources: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free and confidential hotline for people in crisis or for those trying to help someone else. Call 1-800-273-8255
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