HOUSTON - As investigations into the jail cell death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland continue in Waller County, Texas, relatives, friends and African American civil rights activists continue to express doubts about the official determination that she took her own life. But, nationwide statistics show that such tragedies are not uncommon.
Suicides are more than twice as likely to happen in local jails as in prisons or the general population, according the U.S. Center for Disease Control. Jails are where accused persons get their introduction to the criminal justice system, while prisons hold people who have had more time to adjust to life behind bars.
Psychologist Tom Ellis, a suicide expert at the world-renowned Menninger Clinic in Houston, says being put in jail is a shocking event.
“A situation that may only be a challenge to one individual or be a source of adversity, can be catastrophic for another person," he said.
Ellis says people in jail are abruptly cut off from the world they know. Negative thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming.
“The feeling of being alone in the world with your suffering and pain and your situation really adds to the suicidal impulse in a very significant way," he said.
Isolation can trigger suicidal thoughts, says Ellis. Jailers put Bland in a cell by herself and checked on her periodically. But he says when someone is seen as a suicide risk, constant monitoring may be needed, which could stretch the resources of small county jails.
Jailers had Bland fill out a health assessment form when she was incarcerated on July 10. On it, she indicated that she had tried to kill herself once before. She also revealed that she suffered from epilepsy.
Dr. Nathan Fountain, a University of Virginia professor who chairs an advisory board for the Epilepsy Foundation, says people with epilepsy have a much higher rate of depression than most other people in the general population.
He says depression and suicidal thoughts are much more evident in patients with specific forms of the disorder.
“There are certain conditions and certain types of epilepsy that have a greater association with depression than others because they involve a part of the brain that also causes depression," Fountain said.
Fountain says that medication used to prevent epileptic seizures is highly unlikely to cause depression and should be administered to inmates.
There are now two separate investigations into what happened to Bland, but whether they ultimately confirm suicide as her cause of death or not, the circumstances of her arrest and confinement may well have left her in danger of killing herself.