We killed them

One wonders when a stint behind bars turned into a death sentence for so many thrown into the county-jail system in California. Despite media coverage and numerous lawsuits, the number of deaths behind bars keeps going up. But because we can’t see them dying and because they are criminals, their deaths are easy to ignore.

Although most of these deaths can be ruled suicides, jailers must take some responsibility for the fatalities. And really, all of us are to blame. After all, we gave the extraordinary power to police and prosecutors to take away the person’s freedom, and we also allow the negligence in jails by re-electing certain sheriffs and county officials.

The objective is humane confinement, especially for those in jail who have yet to be convicted of a crime. I know that the majority deserve some form of punishment, and we certainly dole it out before trial, in California’s get-tough fashion. Before the evidence is weighed, we have taken away life, as the defendant knows it; liberty; and the pursuit of happiness. But for many, we’ve also taken away all hope.

When those high-risk, acutely self-injurious people are thrown inside, it heaps a special obligation onto jailers to prevent suicide. If the criminal-justice system takes mentally unstable people, the system has a professional duty to take extra care, as well.

In the case of Steven Achen (see “A preventable death”), he and his family signaled that he was depressed and might attempt suicide. Yet he never saw a doctor. It doesn’t take a forensic psychologist to predict what would happen—a self-imposed sentence of death by sheet.

But now, there’s a new player in the jail system to examine closely the HMO-like companies that contract out medical care in jails for many county governments. The outside contractors handle troublesome jail health care for a fee, and politicians have one less headache. So, now the government, it seems, wants to shed the responsibility for these deaths.