The day after Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail cell, Native American activist Rexdale Henry was found dead with broken ribs in a Mississippi jail cell. Eighteen-year-old Kindra Chapman hanged herself in an Alabama jail cell the same day. On Sunday, Ralkina Jones was found dead in an Ohio jail cell.
Those deaths are still under investigation. But whatever the ultimate cause, a substantial portion of jailhouse deaths in America have one thing in common: the inmate had no business being in jail in the first place.
Jails, unlike prisons, are mostly for people who have not had a trial yet. “About six out of every ten inmates in this country is unconvicted,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director at the Pretrial Justice Institute, a national advocacy group. “Most of them are for misdemeanors, and most of them are low-level charges. If they had their risks assessed, they would be identified as low-risk, and they should never be booked or held in the first place.”
In 2012, the latest year for which federal data is available, 73.2% of inmates who died in jail for any reason had not been convicted of a crime. That’s 698 people. The largest chunk of those deaths—348 total—happened within the first seven days of being booked into the facility. (This was the case in the deaths of Bland, Henry, Chapman, and Jones.)
A few simple changes, such as reforming our bail system, would go a long way toward reducing our overblown jail population, Fanno Burdeen said.
Bail in most jurisdictions is based on a preset dollar amount that correlates with the charge. These “bond schedules,” as they are known, are blind to the financial status of the person who is charged with a crime. As a result, about 90 percent of incarcerated pre-trial defendants are in jail only because they don’t have the money to post bond. This system costs taxpayers about $9 billion annually, in addition to increasing recidivism for those who stay in jail for longer periods of time, found the American Bar Association.
“Right now we’re seeing incredibly bad outcomes come from decisions that get made with very little thought,” said Fanno Burdeen.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for jail inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Between 2000 and 2012, suicide accounted for 32% of all jail deaths. White inmates had a suicide rate at least three times higher than any other race.
Just a few days in jail can destabilize even the most low risk inmates, Fanno Burdeen said.
Right now we’re seeing incredibly bad outcomes come from decisions that get made with very little thought- Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director, Pretrial Justice Institute
“I imagine the destabilizing impact can cause a lot of despair and hopelessness, especially when you [have to] think of what it takes to get out of jail,” she said. “Having to come up with that money, or what you’d have to put up to the bondsman in order to get you out of jail, that that can also weigh heavily on somebody who is low-risk.”
Overall, minorities are bearing a disproportionate burden of an unjust jail system.
“Black and brown Americans are twice as likely to be held pretrial because they can’t pay bail, which is often set under a thousand dollars,” noted Fanno Burdeen, citing a Bureau of Justice Statistics study. “Compound that with the fact that you’re more likely to be stopped and arrested, and you start to see the scope of the problem.”
Recently, under the glare of the suicide of Kalief Browder—who was unable to make bail and held for three years in pretrial detention at Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit—has been taken up in New York City.
But considering recent events, it’s obvious there is still some ways to go.