Moya Atkinson, MSW, co-founder of Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC)

Alison Lauro’s timely ten-page article Suicide Rates on the Rise that appeared in NASW’s Social Work Advocates’ failed to mention the high rate of suicide and self-mutilation within prisons, jails and detention centers or the role social workers play or should/could play in these settings.

The Facts – Isolated Prisoners at risk of suicide

Suicide among prisoners is on the rise. In 2014, there were at 3,927 inmate deaths, in state (3,483) and federal (444) prisons, the largest number of such deaths reported since tracking began in 2001.  From 2013 to 2014, the number of suicides among state prisoners climbed from 192 to 249, an increase of 30%. Suicides made up 7% of all state prisoner deaths in 2014, the largest percentage since 2001. Between 2001 and 2014, whites had a suicide mortality rate of 28 per 100,000 prisoners, compared to 8 for blacks and 16 for Hispanics.

The suicide rate for jail prisoners in 2014 was 45 per 100,000 prisoners, but the rate for whites was 95 compared to 19 for blacks and 23 for Hispanics. On average, a prisoner who committed suicide had been in jail for 9 days. About half (47%) of the suicides occurred in general population housing areas, while around 20% were in segregation or special housing units. Suicides among jail prisoners in 2014 were up 13% from 2013.

Jails have a higher suicide rate (46 per 100,000 in 2013) than prisons (15 per 100,0001). People who enter a jail often face a first-time “shock of confinement”; they are stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy. Many commit suicide before they have been convicted at all. According to the BJS report, those rates are seven times higher than for convicted inmates.

For a listing on suicides in correctional facilities, click on:

According to the summer 2018 issue of CorrectCare, a publication of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) Suicide remains one of the ten leading causes of death in the United States and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice it is the leading cause of death in jails”.

So Where was NASW’s Manager for Social Justice and Human Rights When the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’ Initiative to Partner with The American Foundation on Suicide Prevention was launched?

NASW’s Manager for Social Justice and Human Rights represents NASW on the Board of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) as a Supporting Organization. 

The NCCHC partnered with the American Foundation on Suicide Prevention in 2017 – a significant achievement for both organizations  –

“Partnering with NCCHC, a longtime national leader in the field of correctional health care, is critically important and will allow us to reach an audience that is especially vulnerable to suicide”, said Bob Gebbia, AFSP’s CEO. “Research tells us that people in times of transition are at especially high-risk for suicide. Partnering with NCCHC will enable us to educate both correctional staff and health care professionals who work in the correctional system about suicide risk and how to identify and care for the suicidal inmate-patient. We know we can’t do this alone. Only by working with experts like NCCHC will we be able to save more lives.”

“This partnership creates a real opportunity to bring forth major interventions with the potential for immediately saving lives,” said Brent Gibson, MD, MPH, CCHP-P, NCCHC’s chief health officer.  “We greatly appreciate AFSP’s focus and support. The collaboration between our organizations and national health care providers underscores the importance of working together to tackle the problem of suicide…” NCCHC educates health care professionals on suicide risk and outlines current best practices for suicide prevention and intervention in its Standards for Health Services, the basis of its health care services accreditation and professional certification.

“AFSP’s Project 2025 is focused on four critical areas where evidence points to saving the most lives in the shortest amount of time, one of which is the correctional system (emphasis added) where contact with jails and prisons represents high-risk periods for suicide. By focusing on the correctional system, AFSP believes more than 1,000 lives can be saved by 2025.”

Good news for those health professionals who can access the AFSP?

Will social workers benefit from this partnership if NASW and its representatives remain silent partners? After all, the NASW Board of Directors has also failed to keep its promise for its 2018-2019 Policy on Criminal Justice. There has been no action on ending solitary confinement or helping social workers caught in the nightmare of working  in an environment of brutality and dehumanization.

 In fact, the numerous social work professional institutions, other than the Council on Social Work Education have created a Code of Silence around  Dual Loyalty and the Ethics of Health Professionals within the Criminal Legal System.

NASW’s opportunity to contribute!

  • NASW could offer CEUs on the topic of suicide and prevention through its Social Work Advocates Magazine.
  • SWASC and NASW could together develop modules for the Council on Social Work Education’s faculty and staff, as well as continuing education programs.
  • In some states social workers need to obtain continuing education units on suicide and prevention in order to meet licensing requirements.

For our next issue we will leave a blank space for NASW’s response to our concerns.