For the innocent and guilty alike, the experience of being arrested and spending time in a jail cell can be traumatic. For those suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, it can be the trigger that leads to a suicide attempt.
In Montana's county jails, too many of those attempts are successful. Our state desperately needs to enact strong statewide suicide prevention standards - and make sure our jails have the funding to follow them.
Many prevention measures doesn't cost all that much. Montana's suicide prevention coordinator, Karl Rosston, estimates it would cost only $150,000 to distribute suicide prevention smocks and blankets to every one of the state's 48 county jails.
A 2009 bill to start a suicide prevention pilot program had a fiscal note estimating its first-year costs to come in at slightly more than $226,000, and its second-year expenses at less than $209,000. But that bill never even made it out of the Appropriations Committee.
Even outside our jails, Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. While the national average is about 11 suicides for every 100,000 people, in Montana the average approaches 20 suicides for every 100,000 people. This translated into an average of 186 suicides in Montana every year between 2000 and 2009, according to the 2011 Montana Strategic Suicide Prevention Plan.
These statistics are only magnified in the corrections system. In fact, a recent state legislative report noted that suicides occur in Montana's county jails at a rate five times the national average.
For state prisoners, the mental illness ratchets up to 56 percent; but the highest rates of mental illness are found at the local level, where 64 percent of jail inmates had a recent history of mental illness or showed symptoms of mental illness.
Unfortunately, that same report found that the vast majority of these inmates and federal prisoners never receive mental health treatment. As the Missoulian reported last Sunday, Montana's county jail personnel, as the people on the front lines of the fight against jail suicides, would like to see suicide rates drop as much as anyone - perhaps even more. But for that to happen, the Legislature must make statewide standards and funding a priority.
A report by the interim legislative committee that examined the issue last year provides some excellent starting points. For example, suicide screening and prevention standards are currently voluntary; they should be required.
Inmates found to present a greater risk of suicide should be subject to 30-minute cell checks, instead of the one-hour checks that are now common practice. And preventive materials, such as clothing and bedding, should be available.
But none of these recommendations will become reality until Montanans start pushing state leaders to make them happen. Given the relatively small expense of implementing some of these measures - such as providing the smocks - it is unconscionable that legislators have done nothing to secure funding for them.
Montana's jail suicide problem is formidable, and not one that is going to be solved overnight. However, the solution is not to do nothing. The state must start listening to its suicide prevention experts and taking steps, however small to start with, to stem the tragic tide of jail suicides.
- The Missoulian