March 4, 2019
By Chris Burrell and Hannah Schoenbaum
The number of inmate suicides in Massachusetts’ county jails dropped to three last year — the lowest tally since 2011 and a sharp decrease from 10 suicides the year before in jails run by county sheriffs, according to data compiled by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Last year’s package of sweeping criminal justice reform legislation didn’t directly address suicide prevention, but the new laws are pushing both state prisons and county jails to broaden definitions of mental illness and to cut back on practices such as solitary confinement, a known factor in inmate suicides.
One reform will require both state and counties to reduce the amount of time mentally ill inmates can be held in solitary confinement to 72 hours.
Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services in Boston, said the new laws should also create more uniform mental health practices in the county jails, which have been largely unregulated by the state even though it spends more than $600 million a year to fund sheriffs’ departments.
Tenneriello is glad to see the lower jail suicide numbers but said jails and prisons still need to focus on treatment, not segregating inmates and exacerbating their mental problems.
“Even the people we think pose the greatest threat to our prisons, let’s get them out of their cell, let’s get them treatment,” she said. “Let’s treat them like human beings, because locking them in a box is manufacturing suicides.”