[8/23/21] – Texas Prisons See Increase in Suicides Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic
In July of 2021, Kevin Praylor, a 43-year-old Texas prisoner who had struggled with mental health illness, committed suicide. Praylor, according to an article in The Marshall Project, was one of five prisoners who died by suicide within a six-day period. This “cluster” of deaths that took place in Texas prisons has drawn attention to the increasing number of prisoner suicides, as well as the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the prison population.
Data compiled by the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit, shows that prisoner suicides have been increasing in the state of Texas since 2005. However, the issue is not just found in Texas prisons, it is an issue that is impacting correctional facilities across the country. For example, prior to the onset of COVID-19, the state of California reported its highest number or prison suicides in 2018, despite the state’s previous efforts to reform the prison system (i.e., reduce overcrowding, etc.). State prisons in Georgia also saw their prisoner suicide rates more than double in the three years prior to COVID-19. And, in April of this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that from 2001 to 2018 there was an 85% increase in suicides in state prisons. All of this data substantiates the claim that prisoner suicide is an issue that is affecting prisons across the country. But, has COVID-19 further exacerbated the issue?
Experts and advocacy groups, such as the Southern Center for Human Rights, believe that the “unprecedented levels” of suicide rates amongst prisoners this past year could likely be the result of worsening conditions and staffing shortages that the prisoners faced and continue to face during the ongoing pandemic. According to various sources, including The Marshall Project, worsening conditions included cancelled classes, no visitation, unsanitary living conditions, inadequate food, lack of adequate mental health care, and a 500% increase in the use of solitary confinement. The practice of solitary confinement, which is described by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a prison management tool and form of punishment, is widely used in correctional facilities across the nation. Prisoners are typically housed in small cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, with little to no human interaction. The effects of being subjected to such conditions are devasting. Research from the Prison Policy Initiative has found solitary confinement negatively impacts the mental health of prisoners by adding an “extra burden of stress” which can result in permanent changes to prisoners’ brains and personalities. The use of such punishment is also considered “lethal,” as prisoners in solitary “account for approximately half of all prison suicides.” In a 2020 report, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) found that the COVID-19 pandemic increased the risk of negative heath consequences and self-harm for prisoners who were in solitary due to fears of contracting and dying from the virus and the inability to see family.
Although these conditions are among some of the many issues that prisons and other correctional facilities across the country have been grappling with since the pandemic took hold last year, campaigns such as Unlock the Box, are calling for officials at all levels of government to make changes, such as reducing their inmate populations, using alternative methods to quarantine in correctional facilities, implementing universal testing, and providing personnel protection equipment to those living and working in the facilities, in order reduce the use of solitary confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the impact of COVID-19 on prison population.
Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- Writing: Explain the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the inmate population in correctional facilities across the nation.
- Debate: According to data from various sources, prisoner suicide rates have been increasing for years. Do you believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the issue?
- Poll: The use of solitary confinement should be abolished because it is fundamentally inhumane. (Agree or Disagree).
- Short Answer: Discuss the solutions that groups are suggesting correctional facilities implement in order to reduce the use of solitary confinement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cover Image: © iStockphoto.com/PictRider