The string of five inmate deaths — including four suicides — in Hawaii correctional facilities in just over two months is indeed a crisis, as Ted Sakai, the state’s director of public safety said recently.

And it should be seen as a crisis for the community as a whole, not just for the prison system.

“It’s so heartbreaking and shocking,” said Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons. “I can only imagine what families of anyone in the correctional system are thinking right now.”

Unfortunately, the problem of prison and jail suicides is not new.

A 1975 report by the state ombudsman found there had been six suicides in Honolulu’s jail between 1961 and 1975. The jail housed short-term inmates, including those awaiting trial, pending appeal, or serving short misdemeanor sentences, and was operated by the Honolulu Police Department and the city. Jail operations were subsequently taken over by the state’s Department of Public Safety, which houses pre-trial and other short-term inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center and smaller centers on the neighbor islands.

Hawaii is one of a handful of states which operates a single prison system with both pre-trial and sentenced inmates.

The ombudsman’s report, and several studies that have followed, help to put the recent spate of suicides in context.

The ombudsman’s report included several general findings.

• Prison records were not readily available to verify the list of suicides, which was reportedly based primarily on the recollections of “old timers” working at the jail.

• Suicides are more likely in jail than in prison, perhaps because this is more often an individual’s first experience with the criminal justice system. “It is a traumatic experience for many and for some an experience they cannot cope with,” the report found.

• Most suicides occur soon after being incarcerated, ranging from the first few hours to the first few weeks of confinement.

• Each of the inmates committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. Five happened while the inmates were held in “segregation,” meaning they were alone in a single cell. In the remaining case, the suicide took place in a common cell while other inmates were asleep.

The ombudsman’s report recommended improved mental health screening of inmates on admission to the correctional system, beefed up training for guards “to identify residents going through severe emotional crisis and depression,” better record keeping to flag inmates at risk, and more care in the use of punitive segregation.

The report recognized that implementing its recommendations would require “additional funds, personnel and back-up services.”

The number of suicides in Hawaii correctional facilities has risen in the years since the 1975 report.

There were 15 suicides between 1989 and 1998, or 67.4 suicides per 100,000 inmates, according to the report of a federal consultant brought in after four inmates committed suicide during a one-month period at the beginning of 1999. The report, prepared by an official from the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, concluded the minimal suicide prevention training provided prison staff was “inadequate” and needed to be increased.

During 2001-2002, Hawaii reported just two suicides, or 19 per 100,000, according to a special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics published in 2005.

More recent BJS statistics show Hawaii had 12 prison suicides between 2000 and 2007, or 32 suicides per 100,000 inmates, compared to an average of 19 per 100,000 among all western states.

That ranked Hawaii third highest among the western states in the rate of prison suicides, behind Utah and Montana, higher than California, and twice as high as Arizona, Colorado, and Washington.

According to BJS:

• Older inmates are more likely to commit suicide than younger ones. Inmates age 35-44 are nearly 17 times more likely to commit suicide than prisoners age 18-24, and suicide rates of those over 55 are 59 times higher than young prisoners.

• Men are more likely to commit suicide than women.

• Violent offenders are twice as likely to commit suicide as nonviolent offenders.

• Nearly two-thirds of jail suicides involving short-term inmates took place during the first 30 days of incarceration.

The 1975 ombudsman’s investigation was triggered by a complaint from peace activist Jim Albertini, who served a 90-day jail sentence for refusing to pay a fine after being convicted for his role in a peaceful anti-Vietnam War protest.

Albertini, reached by phone at his home in Mountain View on Hawaii Island, recalls being thrown into solitary confinement for a week as punishment after he organized other inmates to support ten “constructive” proposals to improve prison conditions.

“While I was in solitary, there was another guy a few cells away who was so down, having such a hard time, screaming and everything,” Albertini said. “After completing my sentence and getting out of the jail, I learned he had committed suicide after being held in solitary for over a month.”

“Prison is a brutal system,” Albertini said. “And as more and more of the mental health system is dismantled, prison becomes the catch-all.”

“The suicides are a symptom of a sick criminal justice system baed on punishment rather than healing,” he said.

These suicides challenge the public’s prevailing “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards our prison facilities and what goes on in them. It’s time the rest of us, aided by what’s left of the news media, to pay closer attention and hold the system accountable for the offenders entrusted to their care.

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