Last week’s death of convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein in a federal holding facility in Manhattan has caused a national scandal.
Facing a federal sex trafficking indictment involving children in Florida and New York, Epstein hung himself in his cell Aug. 10 while guards responsible for watching him reportedly were sleeping. The millionaire financier was previously convicted of state felony prostitution charges in Florida.
Epstein’s connections with powerful people have led to lurid suggestions and outlandish conspiracy theories. Alexander Acosta, the U.S. attorney who agreed to Epstein’s 2008 deal, went on to be President Trump’s appointee as secretary of labor. He resigned when his handling of the case became a scandal. In 2002, Trump called Epstein a friend and a “terrific guy.” Former President Bill Clinton traveled to Europe, Asia and twice to Africa on Epstein’s private jet. Both cut ties to Epstein after he was charged with child sexual abuse.
After the suicide, Attorney General William Barr says he was appalled by the fact that a high-profile prisoner who had previously made a serious attempt at suicide was not being monitored more carefully. The lockup’s warden has been reassigned, and two guards have been placed on leave.
Barr is right to demand answers, but understanding the real scandal here doesn’t require resorting to cabals of insider conspirators, and it certainly doesn’t need Epstein as its poster boy.
Here’s the real scandal: Too many people die of suicide in America; too many of those who die of suicide do so in jail.
In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the nation, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s office sent me a spreadsheet showing 254 suicides in Tulsa County from 2017 and 2018. Suicide far outpaces homicide as a cause of death in Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma and the nation.
Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death in jail in the United States. Between 2000 and 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded 4,508 jail suicides, outnumbering deaths attributed to heart disease, cancer, accidents, homicide ... You name it. Some 762 of those deaths were of prisoners who had never been convicted of any crime. More than half were in jail on nonviolent cases.
The Oklahoma Department of Health, which keeps tabs on jail suicides in the state, recorded 22 in 2018 and 10 so far this year.
It should be no surprise that Oklahomans are killing themselves. The state has systematically underfunded mental health programs that could prevent suicide. At the same time, it has made access to guns — a lethally efficient means to that end — deadly easy. On that spreadsheet from the medical examiner’s office, the majority of the cases were attributed to gunshot wounds. Twenty-eight of those Tulsa County gun suicides were under the age of 30. It’s a preventable tragedy that we ignore out of fear and shame.
It also shouldn’t be too surprising that Oklahomans are killing themselves in jail. That’s where we warehouse people who have hit rock bottom and for whom we have no other place. The largest mental health facility in northeastern Oklahoma is the Tulsa County jail.
That isn’t the way it should be.
We have twisted the proper uses of jails to tragic results.
Jails are for holding people accused of crimes and who are a danger to the public or who pose a flight risk prior to trial. They are also for holding people sentenced to less than one year on misdemeanor convictions or who are awaiting transport to prisons for longer felony conviction sentences.
Jails aren’t for coercing people into plea bargains. They aren’t for providing business for bail bondsmen. They aren’t for punishing people who haven’t had trial and are presumed innocent. They aren’t for warehousing people with mental illness who scare us and who have no other place to be.
Jails should keep the appropriate people securely inside, safe from bad impulses and other prisoners. The appalling number of jail suicides in the United States and in Oklahoma reflects that they can be dark, dangerous places that are holding people, many of whom don’t need to be there and none of whom deserve death at their own hands.
I’ve got nothing to say in defense of Jeffrey Epstein. He was a pervert and a flight risk. He belonged in jail. He deserved a fair trial and, if convicted, a prison cell for a very long time.
Our social responsibility to deal with the dangers of jail suicide isn’t about protecting the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world. It’s about protecting our teenage children, ashamed of a drunken driving arrest. It’s about protecting innocents unable to afford bail and unable to see a path to justice. It’s about protecting people who need treatment, not incarceration.
The real scandal is that all those people aren’t getting the attention that Epstein has.