In 2019, Judge Michael L. Nelson, Sr., of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, announced that he would release all people charged with nonviolent offenses instead of setting money bail after six people incarcerated in the county jail died within four months—two from suicide, two from drug use, and two from still undetermined causes.Adam Ferrise, “Cuyahoga County Jail Inmate Dies, Marking Sixth Inmate Death in Four Months,” Cleveland.com, October 2, 2018; and Joshua Rhett Miller, “Judge Vows To Only Send ‘Worst Of The Worst’ To Jail After Inmate Deaths,” New York Post, October 4, 2018.
“Six deaths means the jail is unsafe,” Nelson told the New York Times. “You shouldn’t die before we see you in court.”Karen Zraick, “Cleveland Judge Refuses to Send Low-Level Defendants to Jail after Inmate Deaths,” New York Times, October 5, 2018.
Judge Nelson called for bail reform as a solution to ease the jail’s overcrowding problem—for four of the past five years, the jail has operated at over 100 percent capacity.Karen Zraick, “Cleveland Judge Refuses to Send Low-Level Defendants to Jail after Inmate Deaths,” New York Times, October 5, 2018.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in U.S. jails: more than heart disease, more than overdose, more than homicide.Noonan, “Mortality in Local Jails,” 2016. The suicide rate at the Volusia County Branch Jail in Florida is extreme, estimated at 93.4 per 100,000 incarcerated people, nearly double the national suicide rate for jails, and more than seven times the suicide rate for the general population.Seth Robbins, “Volusia County Takes on High Jail Suicide Rate — Too Late For Some,” Daytona Beach News-Journal, August 25, 2018. For the national suicide rate for jails, see Noonan, “Mortality in Local Jails” 2016. For the overall national suicide rate, see “Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999–2014,” National Center for Health Statistics, April 2016. Of the 99 suicide attempts there since 2013—including 10 in the first half of 2018—a dozen resulted in death.Seth Robbins, “Volusia County,” 2018. County officials, facing lawsuits and a rising death toll, took action by increasing access to medical care for people held in the jail and choosing a new health care provider based on recommendations from a suicide prevention expert.Dustin Wyatt, “Volusia County Chooses New Health Provider for Jail,” Daytona Beach News-Journal, August 21, 2018. Deaths in custody also made news in New Orleans, where two people died in 2018 in the Orleans Justice Center jail.Emily Lane, “Cause of Death Not Yet Clear for Man Found Unresponsive in Orleans Jail Cell: Coroner,” nola.com, December 6, 2018.