United States: who's legally responsible for prison and jail suicides?

Lawsuits used to be a path to prison reform, but they’re now an uphill battle for prisoners and their families.

When Jose Luis Garza was arrested for threatening his brother during an intoxicated argument, his mother begged the police to keep watch of him. “I’m afraid of him hurting himself,” she told the arresting officer early one morning in February of 2016.

Watchfulness did not ensue. Despite his mother’s warnings, the local jail in the border town of Donna, Texas, took no mental-health precautions. Instead, in the hours after Garza covered the camera in his cell with wet paper towels, no one checked in on him. Sometime after 8 a.m., guards noticed Garza’s increasingly distressed wailing and banging on the cell doors, but did not investigate his condition.(Much later, a jailer added an entry to the hourly cell-check log for this time, but whether any took place is disputed.)

During that time, the jail staff was preoccupied with sign-making, working to produce tongue-in-cheek placards to decorate the facility. “Welcome to the Donna Hilton,” one read. Another sported the vigilante skull from the Punisher comic books. It was only after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrived at the jail for unrelated purposes that Garza’s body was discovered. He’d hanged himself by his T-shirt tied to the bars of his cell door. No one had any idea how long he’d been hanging.

Garza’s family felt that the town of Donna bore some responsibility, and sued. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling late last month that the city was not liable for his death by suicide. “Whatever we may think of the various DPD employees’ actions,” the court wrote, “it is apparent that the record cannot support municipal liability on this basis.”

Suicide is the leading cause of death in jails. The jail suicide rate was 50 per 100,000 inmates, compared to the rate of 13 suicides per 100,000 people across the entire United States population, in 2014, the most recent year with available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Despite the empirical links between incarceration and suicide, an obstacle course of prisoner-unfriendly legislation and legal doctrines stand in the path of attempts at holding any individual person or institution accountable. Over the past two and a half decades, these legal barriers have made reforming prison conditions via litigation nearly impossible.

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