The number of suicide attempts in Texas prisons had been a fairly consistent thing. But recently, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, reported a dramatic change. On average, there had been 167 suicide attempts each month, but this September, that dropped to just 23, and only 12 in October.
Reporter Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle says TDCJ claimed it had been overcounting suicide attempts.
“Under their previous definition,” Blakinger explains, “they were broadly counting any sort of suicidal ideation.”
That meant that any time a guard responded to a “suicide attempt” call, it was recorded as such. But that didn’t always reflect what was actually happening when guards got to the scene, and it didn’t necessarily reflect what mental health professionals eventually determined what had happened.
As of Sept. 1, 2019, TDCJ adopted more narrow, medical definitions to determine whether an even was a suicide attempt or completed suicide. The change came after a steady increase over the years in the number of suicides and attempted suicides in Texas prisons. In 2018, 40 inmates died by suicide while in TDCJ custody.
From her experience reporting on the issue, Blakinger says she doesn’t have faith in TDCJ’s data – neither before the change or after. She says 12 suicide attempts is likely lower than reality, and 167 is probably too high.
“It’s troubling in that it’s hard to, in any way, meaningfully track what’s going on,” she says.
Written by Morgan Kuehler.