Suicide Attempts on Rise in D.C. Jails

Officials Say Mental Illness Widespread

Stacy M. Brown | 7/2/2014, 3 p.m.
A new report revealed that more than 70 inmates in a Washington D.C. jail have attempted or threatened suicide since ...
India, 42, suffers from manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has spent almost all of her adult life in jails and prisons. (John Gress/The New York Times)

Whether one resides in prison or the White House, there’s little escape from the battle against mental illness.

“The president has to really insist [on getting out]. You know, it’s good for his mental health, I think, to do that,” Ken Walsh, the chief White House correspondent at U.S. News and World Report and the author of, “Prisoners of the White House,” said of President Barack Obama’s recent strolls along Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest.

“Harry Truman called it the great white jail. Bill Clinton called the White House the crown jewel in the federal penitentiary system and presidents tend to really, in very short order, get claustrophobic, they get very resentful,” Walsh said.

It’s likely that Walsh’s comments can be construed as being a little facetious when comparing the Oval Office to the Warden’s Office, but the author’s insights come as a new report revealed that more than 70 inmates in a Washington D.C. jail have attempted or threatened suicide since September.

Channel 4 News reported on June 16 that none of the suicide attempts proved successful, but prison and city officials said the frequency of the episodes count as an indication of widespread mental illness inside District detention facilities.

In an August 5, 2013 email obtained by the Peacock network’s D.C. affiliate, Tom Faust, the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections expressed concern about suicides and he feared a public relations nightmare.

“This afternoon we have experienced our third inmate suicide at our main facility in just the last six weeks,” Faust said in the email. “As you can imagine, we will get beat up by the press and Council … all bets are off.”

The attempts have placed more pressure on Faust and other local correction officials who have ordered changes inside city jails in the wake of earlier suicides.

“Our jails and prisons, including here in the District, have started to become psychiatric hospitals staffed with an insufficient number of mental health professionals,” Faust said in a statement released to the media shortly after Channel 4’s recent report. “There is a critical need for alternatives regarding mental illness and the need to shift the responsibility of untreated mental illness out of the criminal justice system.”

Attorney Edwin P. Aro, of the firm Arnold & Porter LLP, who filed a lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of four local inmates who alleged that they were denied adequate mental health services, said the Bureau of Prisons turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill and to the deplorable conditions of confinement that are inhumane.

“No civilized society treats its mentally-ill citizens with such deliberate indifference to their plight,” said Aro, a Colorado-based attorney who joined the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in filing the suit.

Aro contends that dozens and perhaps hundreds of inmates, including those from D.C., are being denied medication for their illnesses. Those inmates include Ernest Norman Shaifer of the District, who suffers from bipolar disorder.

Shaifer’s father, Carl Shaifer, said his son only needed his proper medication which would have helped him to avoid a 10-year sentence he received for attacking a chaplain at another prison.