Statewide scrutiny due on N.J. jail suicides | Editorial

Now that Atlantic County has joined Cumberland with a spate of county-jail suicides, let's look up and down the state for similar patterns.

Because he represents in civil litigation relatives of inmates who took their own lives, attorney Conrad J. Benedetto’s recent assertion that county jail suicides in New Jersey are “… a public health crisis in the state” can appear self-serving.

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Benedetto’s comments come as NJ Advance Media reports that the Atlantic County Jail in Hamilton Township has seen six such suicides since 2015, the last one on Oct. 15. The Atlantic County facility thus joins the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton, long under fire for its suicides, in reporting a half dozen of them over two or three years.

Philadelphia-based Benedetto, who also has offices in Voorhees and Cherry Hill, represents one of three families that are currently suing Atlantic County, and others who have filed actions against Cumberland County. That said, his remarks are instructive, even if they do not signal a full-blown crisis.

Any in-custody prison death that is not the result of a medical condition must be regarded as an avoidable death, and suicides are the most avoidable ones. When investigated, it’s often found that prison suicides are aided by lax monitoring; nobody has checked the prisoner’s cell for longer than regulations or policies call for.

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It’s tougher to blame violent deaths of prisoners (or corrections officers, for that matter) on policy or job performance issues. Fights can break out in an instant. Still, the most notorious prison killing of 2018, that of Boston crime boss “Whitey” Bulger, occurred at a West Virginia federal prison complex with a long history of alleged attacks on inmates. Bulger was beaten to death Oct. 30, not long after he was transferred to the Hazelton Correctional Facility. 

Obviously, there are many questions that federal jailers in West Virginia need to answer. The Boston Globe reports that the U.S. Justice Department has just assigned a monitor to the West Virginia site, where Bulger was the third inmate to be killed by prisoners this year.

Similarly, South Jersey news outlets learned last month that the feds are looking into the Bridgeton jail because of the number of suicides. Reports say that the focus will not be on any individual death or deaths, but on whether the correctional facility takes reasonable steps to prevent suicides, including mental health assessments and treatment availability. So far, the Atlantic County lockup isn’t getting the same intensive Justice Department review, although such a move seems reasonable, if not imminent.

The feds will go only where a suicide problem is extreme — or where the deaths have grabbed headlines, so it is up to our state government to go further. The first thing to determine is whether this is the “crisis” that Benedetto describes, or just a minor departure from statistical norms.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections can start by looking at in-custody death cases and their causes. If there is a recurring problem, Gov. Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature should set up a commission to study possible remedies.

A few years ago, a suicide in the now-closed Gloucester County Jail in Woodbury was traced to the fact that jailers did not take away the inmate’s shoelaces. It’s common practice to collect laces, belts and other items with which someone might hang themselves. When that fails to happen, it’s the county and its taxpayers who bear the legal exposure. 

Other reasons for suicides and other in-custody deaths surely are more complex. Lawsuits filed by Benedetto and other civil rights attorneys can help expose weaknesses in the system, but prevention is clearly the preferred option.

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