The suicide death in jail of billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein has sparked confusion and outrage across the nation, and many ill-founded conspiracy theories online. Many are rightly worried that Epstein’s rich and powerful associates who may have participated in his crimes, many of which have not been thoroughly investigated, could now go free. It’s a distinct possibility. And conspiracy theories or not, one area that should receive immediate scrutiny and reform is our ridiculous, bloated prison system.
Epstein’s suicide has unfortunate parallels to the 2015 prison suicide death of Sandra Bland, an African American woman whose crime was allegedly failing to signal a lane change. The New York Times recently reported that the jail in which Epstein was held was short-staffed, Epstein was left alone for hours at a time, and one of the two guards assigned to him was not usually a corrections officer. Bland’s death, which exposed similar negligence on the part of those guarding the incarcerated, did have policy implications. In Texas, where the outrage took place, legislators passed the Sandra Bland Act, a law that mandates county jails develop better intake screening processes and divert individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues to treatment options. Also, the inept trooper who arrested Bland, displayed in a stomach-turning, rage-inducing video of the incident, is no longer allowed to work in law enforcement.
In Massachusetts, we’re moving in the right direction. The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker agreed to a package of criminal justice reforms last year, including:
- Elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes
- Raising the minimum age a child can be held criminally responsible from 7 to 12
- Taking a defendant’s ability to pay into consideration when setting bail
- Increased reliance on diversion programs for the mentally ill, those with substance abuse issues, and veterans
- Expungement of minor crimes committed before the age of 21
- Restriction of solitary confinement
Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate of any state — with 126 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. And yet, even Massachusetts has a higher rate of imprisonment than much of the world, including India, Japan, Canada, and more than half of Europe. The U.S. as a whole has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The U.S. prison population is also made up of 60 percent of people of color, double the percentage in the country’s population at large.
And while Massachusetts is moving in the right direction, the state has a long way to go. The Boston Globe recently reported that visits to Massachusetts prisoners fell sharply following the new rules enacted last year, which restricted how many visitors any given prisoner can have. There was a 23 percent decline, leaving those incarcerated less able to remain connected to the outside, and set up their lives upon their release.
We need a judicial system less inclined to lock people up, and with a reduction in prison population, those that staff them should be able to ensure humane treatment and keep those in jails and prison from committing suicide. That wasn’t done for Bland, who didn’t belong there in the first place, or for Epstein, who still had much to answer for from the judicial system.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.