Sally Fitzgibbons Foundation

Beginning the Academic Essay

Abstract
In the prison and jail system there is a long history of violence, it can either be violence
between inmate-to-inmate, the inmates and staff workers, or self-inflicted. Kalief Browder is a
young adult that took his life after serving three years in the jail system. During Browder’s time
at Riker’s Island, he was exposed to severe beatings by gangs and correctional officers and
placed in solitary confinement that was psychological torture. I would like to investigate the
types of violence that inmates have to endure during their time in the jail system, and how it
may be a factor that leads to unfortunate events. The main objective of my research is to
determine the correlation between jail violence particularly solitary confinement in the jail
system affecting inmate’s mental health and leading the increase incidences in suicides.
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Introduction
In the United States, it makes up five percent of the world’s population and has twentyone
percent of the world’s prisoners (National Association for the Advanced Placement of
Colored People). The increase in numbers of incarcerated people in America has increased
from 500,000 to over 2.2 million. In the jail and prison system inmates tend to endure living in
over-crowed cells, unsanitary conditions, neglect and abuse. According to National Association
for the Advanced Placement of Colored People, African American are incarcerated more than
five times the rate of whites. In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million of the total 6.8
million in the correctional population (National Association for the Advanced Placement of
Colored People). According to the Treatment and Advocacy, mental illness is prevalent in the
U.S Corrections system that prisons and jails are commonly called “the new asylums”. Some of
the listed jails that are to be considered would be Los Angeles County Jail, Chicago’s Cooks
County Jail and New York’s Riker Island Jail hold more mentally ill inmates than remaining
psychiatric hospitals in the United States (Treatment and Advocacy Center, 2016). The mental
health and well-being of an individual is compromised while serving time in the jail or prison
system. Most inmates in the jail system suffer from serious mental illnesses and may have a
hard time adjusting to the routine or the rules that go along with being incarcerated and
serving their time in jail. Violence in the jail system plays a big role in an inmate’s perception of
their world and would be a factor that can affect their mental health leading to a high risk of
inmate suicides. Firstly, I will discuss the racial disparities in the criminal justice system,
Secondly, I will discuss the risk factors of suicide in the jail system, Thirdly, I will discuss the
negative psychological effects of solitary confinement, Lastly, I will discuss a suicide case where
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an African American male by the name of Kalief Browder that took his life away due to jail
violence and solitary confinement.
Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System
According to a study, “Inside Rikers: The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration in
the Twenty-First Century” the racial disparities in the criminal justice system are undeniable.
African Americans compromise thirteen percent of the population but twenty-eight percent of
those arrested and forty-percent of them are incarcerated (Wynn, 2012). There are far more
African Americans under correction control today in prison or jail, on probation or parole than
were enslaved in 1850 (Alexander, 2011). Racial disparities with incarceration plays across all
generations in the black community. 1 in 28 children has a parent behind bars, but for an
African American child it’s 1 in 9 (Wynn, 2012). The War on Drugs is a driving force behind the
racial disparity in incarceration and studies have shown that whites and blacks use drugs at the
same rate, but African Americans make up more than half those in prison for drug offenses.
African Americans constitute eighty to ninety percent of all drug offenders sent to prison
(Wynn, 2012). People of color are more likely to be arrested for drug use, are more likely to be
in jail while they are awaiting their trial, are excluded from juries because of their race, serve
longer jail or prison sentences, are more likely to be disenfranchised because of their conviction
and are more likely to have their probation revoked (Kahn ; Kirk).
Risk Factors of Suicide in the Jail System
There are two types of suicides, there are the suicide attempters and the suicide
completers. When a person attempts suicide, it’s a non-lethal type similar to self-mutilation by
self-harming themselves, but not ever completing the act. They tend to persistently inflict harm
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on themselves but can lead to using more lethal methods that can eventually lead to a
successful suicide. The suicide completers, are individuals that attempt suicide and will inflict
harm to successfully commit suicide. The risk factors are individuals that have a history of drug
abuse, interpersonal conflicts, mental illness are common for the general public and for
inmates in the jail system. There are several factors that inmates would decide to commit
suicide such as Trial status or institutional factors. Pre-trial inmates who commit suicide are
generally between the ages or 20-25 years old, unmarried, male and first-time offenders who
have been arrested for minor cases such as substance related offences (Gupta & Girdhar, 2012).
Inmates are at a higher risk for attempting suicide near the time of a court appearance when
they know that they will receive a harsh sentence. A high amount of suicides occur within three
days of their court appearance (Gupta & Girdhar, 2012). There are also sentenced prisoners
that have the susceptibility of committing suicide, but they are generally older and are between
the ages of 30-35 years old and are violent offenders that are staying in custody for four to five
years (Gupta & Girdhar, 2012). Most of the reasons for the sentenced prisoners would be
institutional conflicts with other inmates, administration, a family conflict or a negative
outcome from the legal aspect like a loss of an appeal or denial or parole. The feelings that an
incarcerated individual would feel would be a feeling of loss of freedom, loss of family and
social support, fear of the unknown, fear of physical or sexual violence, uncertainty and fear
about their future, embarrassment and guilt over the offense, or stress related to poor
environmental conditions (Gupta & Girdhar, 2012). The increase in suicide rates increase with
the long-term inmates and with the increase in the length of stay. Most of these types of
inmates are called “lifers” and have a very high risk (Gupta & Girdhar, 2012).
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Negative Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement
Solitary confinement is often used for inmates that are on high risk for escaping, to keep
an inmate away from harming other inmates and staff, or to punish an inmate for misconduct
that occurs in the jail or prison system. In the United States, approximately 80,000 inmates are
places in solitary confinement each year (Dingfelder, 2012). The psychological effects that
solitary confinement can cause would be emotional, cognitive, and psychosis. This affects an
individual’s mental health and well-being. Most confined prisoners have feelings of rage and
panic by exhibiting irritability, hostility, and have poor impulse control. Some inmates will have
signs of anxiety that can cause low stress levels to severe stress levels causing panic attacks.
There are also depressive states that can cause feelings of hopelessness, mood swings, and
withdrawal. When an inmate is in a depressive state, there is a likelihood of them having
thoughts of suicide or self-harm (Corcoran, 2018). A New York City Jail called Riker’s Island is
well known for the use of jail isolation and is one of the most controversial jails in the United
States. In Riker’s Island there is approximately 100,000 inmates with an average daily
population of 14,000 inmates (Haney, 2016). The high risk for serious harm from jail isolation is
called “Supermax” confinement and this adversely affects the overall mental health of
individual’s that are subjected to it. These inmates are deprived from human contact and social
interaction, inactivity, and are under surveillance (Haney, 2016). In a case study, the adverse
symptoms observed in inmates from being in a “Supermax” confinement would be insomnia,
anxiety, withdrawal, cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, paranoia, lethargy, and depression
(Haney, 2016).
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Suicide Case: Kalief Browder
This is a famous case that occurred in October 2014 of an African American male by the
name of Kalief Browder. This was a very special case that involved the sixteen-year-old black
male from the Bronx, New York that was accused of stealing a backpack. He was arrested while
walking home from a party in the Bronx and was unable to be bailed out from his family
because they were unable to afford the three-thousand-dollar bail for his care. So, Kalief was
sent to Rikers Island to await his trial. Unfortunately, his case was repeatedly postponed
because of the slow congested court system and at the prosecutor’s request because Kalief
wouldn’t plead guilty to a charge that he didn’t do. Kalief, had spent three years in the Rikers
Island Jail system as a pretrial detainee. A pretrial detainee is an individual that is incarcerated
or convicted but are held in jail before their trial on criminal charges because no bail was
posted or denied a pre-trial. The living conditions that Kalief had to endure was violent and
horrendous he was subjected to aggression from gangs and brutality from the guards. He was
housed in solitary confinement for long periods of time and the use of harsh isolations at
Riker’s was increasing around the years that Kalief time in jail. Solitary confinement for the
youth inmates at the Riker’s Jail was being confined in a six-by-eight-foot single cell for twentythree
hours each day with one hour of recreation and access to daily showers. This type of
punishment being confined to a room for all hours of the day with no human interaction can
have a huge negative effect on an inmate’s mental well-being and quality of life. The
recreational time that the inmates receive were in individual chain-linked cages, so most of the
inmates would chose to stay inside their confined cells instead of having to go out to the
recreational area due to being searched and shackled just to be outside the cage. Solitary
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confinement played a big role that caused Kalief to become highly depressed and discouraged
in his life. Kalief also endured being tortured and assaulted by guards and being attacked by a
group of inmates. Kalief had a hard time adjusting to the cruel environment of Rikers Island and
on one occasion, his first attempt to committing suicide was by fashioning a noose from his torn
bedsheets and trying to hang himself from a light fixture. Kalief’s second attempt was when he
was medically cleared and went back to the isolation cells and used a plastic bucket to cut is
wrists. After serving three years at Riker’s Jail and spending seventeen months in solitary
confinement he had a very difficult time adjusting back into society. Kalief suffered with mental
health issues that caused him to feel detached from society and would spend most of his time
alone in his bedroom with the door closed and pacing the bedroom. He also expressed to a
journalist Jennifer Gonnerman, “I’m not all right. I’m messed up” (Haney et al. 2016). He
continued to suffer with mental health problems such as depression and paranoia and
medications did not subside the psychiatric problems. Kalief eventually hung himself with an air
conditioner electrical cord in his parent’s home in the Bronx days before he was due in court to
face new charges (Kochman, 2015). This case is very important because Kalief was unable to
overcome his mental health problems and it resulted in Kalief taking his life away. He was
accused of something he didn’t do and had to suffer being tortured in the jail system. Kalief’s
story is something that everyone should recognize because this shows how racism is still an
ongoing problem and how unjust the criminal justice system is. This is a serious problem
because there are probably several cases like Kalief’s case where they’re accused of something
they didn’t do but have to go through the suffering in the jail system and this may lead to
individuals wanting to take their lives as well.
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Recommendations
The take away message from this research is that there is a high prevalence of mental
health issues in inmates that are serving their time in jail or prison. There can be mental health
issues that develop while being in the jail system, or most inmates already suffer from mental
health issues prior to serving their time in jail. This is relevant because It should that racism is
still a huge issue in our society and that people of color are affected by this problem every day.
People of color are more likely to be misjudged by others, have to suffer unjust treatment and
are treated negatively in society. This research paper would apply to everyone in that it displays
the negative outcomes the jail system. In the case of Kalief Browder, he was an innocent man
that was accused of stealing and dealt with having to suffer serving 3 years in jail and how it led
to him becoming mentally ill and taking his life away.
Assessment
I learned that people of color are racially profiled and usually targeted as criminals that
are causing harm to society. Racism is still a big issue even today and that even after all that
colored people have been through and stood up for themselves, they are still being
discriminated and treated unjustly. There is a stigma on colored people that can’t completely
disappear, and that people will still have some sort of opinion on people of color This topic is
important to me because I was interested in finding out more about the jail system and how it
affects an individual’s mental health. It’s important to be cognitive about how the criminal
system works and how people of color have a slight disadvantage on their side and are destined
to be trapped in the system and have a difficult time getting out of it. It’s a constant cycle that
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they unfortunately have to deal with, but I’m hopeful that one day people will have a better
understanding and are mindful of their thoughts and actions.
Conclusion
In conclusion, there is a correlation between jail violence particularly solitary
confinement in the jail system affecting inmate’s mental health and leading the increase
incidences in suicides. Firstly, I discussed racial disparities and how people of color are more
likely to be trapped in the criminal justice system and make up more than forty percent of the
black population whom are incarcerated. People of color are more likely to be arrested for drug
use, are more likely to be in jail while they are awaiting their trial, are excluded from juries
because of their race, serve longer jail or prison sentences, are more likely to be
disenfranchised because of their conviction and are more likely to have their probation
revoked. Secondly, I discussed the risk factors of suicide in the jail system and how there are
different types to consider when categorizing types of suicides. The rates of suicides increase
varying by age and the type of sentence. There is a higher likelihood of inmates that are first
time offenders between the ages 20-25 years old to commit suicide during their pre-trial
period. While inmates between the ages of 30-35 years old have a longer sentence and are
more likely to commit suicide. Thirdly, I discussed the negative effects of solitary confinement
and how it affects an inmate’s mental health and can lead to adverse signs and symptoms such
as irritability, paranoia, hallucinations, hopelessness, or depression. It’s inhumane to place a
person in a 6 x 8-foot cell for 23 hours out of the day. This type of harsh environment plays a
pivotal role in the mental changes that occur in inmates that have endured this treatment for
years and leads to inmates wanting to attempt or successfully commit suicide. Lastly, I
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discussed the special case of an African American teen that took his life because of the harsh
environment that he had to endure during his three-year time at Rikers Island Jail. This story
was heartbreaking to learn about and knowing that he was an innocent teenager that was
mistreated in the jail system and suffered mental health problems once released and was
unable to adapt to society and ended up committing suicide. In the jail system, there are
multiple issues with how inmates are being mistreated and that solitary confinement is an
important component that negatively impacts an inmates’ mental health and is detrimental to
their well-being and inmates have a hard time adapting after being in solitary confinement for a
long period of time.

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