Suicide Attempts Have Doubled In Texas Prisons, Or Have They?

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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Data shows that suicide attempts in Texas prisons have more than doubled in the last five years, but the rise may be due more to an over-broad definition of a suicide attempt than anything else.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice began an initiative in 2013 to collect better data on inmates’ mental health. Since then, the number of suicide attempts has more than doubled from 65 per month to 150 per month in 2017, the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday. According to Democratic State Sen. John Whitmire, however, those numbers may be inflated.

“I’m not sure the numbers are true indicators of those who have attempted versus those who have talked about it. They call discussing or mentioning that you might commit suicide a suicide attempt and you could take the position that that is really broad,” Whitmire told the Chronicle.

Texas’ general inmate population has decreased even as the rate of “suicide attempts” have skyrocketed. Further, 88 percent of the recorded attempts did not involve any injuries to the inmates, according to the Associated Press. The 2013 reforms came after 36 prisoners committed suicide in 2012, higher than the several years previous.

The spike may also be due to an influx in mentally ill patients, according to Dr. Joseph Penn, the director of mental health at the University of Texas, which oversees healthcare for many Texas prisons. The number of mentally ill inmates in TDCJ’s system has doubled over the last decade, which doesn’t exactly match up with the suicide attempt spike, but could help explain it nonetheless.

Penn, however, agrees that the change in definition is most likely the reason for the increase, which brings into question how useful the numbers truly are for tracking suicidality in the prison system.

“The numbers should better document and distinguish those who actually physically attempt and not include those who just talk about it,” Whitmire said. “There’s a helluva difference if you’re attempting a suicide versus verbally suggesting you might.”

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