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In Orange County Jail, Suicide Is Punished, Not Treated

Read Jose Armendariz's account of being incarcerated in Orange County jail, where suicides are rampant and treatment is sparse.

A medium shot of Jose Armendariz. He is wearing a blue outfit and a white shirt.
Photo of Jose Armendariz (Provided by the author.)

It’s hard to imagine ever being able to forget. It was approximately two years ago that I was sitting inside my jail cell when I noticed a tall figure climbing the top tier stair rail. Over and over he shouted: “It’s broken! It’s broken!” He looked like a wrestler preparing to do a stunt, but this was not some billion-dollar, jam-packed arena, and wrestlers don’t do stunts that end with them dead on a concrete floor.

I got to my feet and at the top of my lungs I shouted, “Don’t do it!”

Immediately, the man, who was clearly anguished and distressed, turned to look at me, his eyes distant and far off, as if he were in a trance. I guided him down with the sound of my voice, and he slowly returned from whatever dark place his mind had driven him to. 

I assured him that whatever was broken could be fixed. I would have offered him the stars and the moon if it meant that he would choose life over death, but in that moment, I offered him what I believed he needed most: hope.

In a shaky voice, I said to him, “Look, I know you don’t know me, but I love you, and whatever it is you’re going through, you don’t have to do it alone. Just talk to me so I know how to help you.”

The anxiety I felt from the fear of potentially being seconds away from watching someone jump to their death was terrifying, but without my having to utter another word, the man slowly climbed down from the rail. I remember gently motioning him toward me and being struck by the question he asked me upon reaching my cell: “Do you really love me, Mister?”

I don’t know if it was the childlike manner in which the question was posed or if the highly intense situation simply got to me, but I was overcome by emotion. Tears in my eyes, I said, “Of course I do.” I asked him his name and he introduced himself as John. 

John was a lot older than I was, yet he only referred to me as Mister, even after I assured him that it was OK to refer to me by name. It was evident that John possessed the intellectual capacity of a child. I offered him a square of Hershey’s chocolate through the small opening under the door. He joyfully and messily ate it all.

I sat on the floor and, through the clear window of the cell door, I made an effort to keep him engaged. Having a door between John and me did not bring me any comfort, as I feared that if his mind drifted into that dark place once more, I would not be able to help him again or keep him from trying to jump over the tier. After all, I was not a licensed mental health professional, and I had no experience in handling a crisis situation. I was simply an incarcerated man struggling with my own trauma and mental health challenges, which I understood were only exacerbated by my own conditions of confinement.

The only thing that I could truly offer John was love and solidarity, so when he said to me, “Mister, my head is broken, please help me fix it,” I knew that I was way out of my league.

Up to 64% of people behind bars suffer from trauma and mental health issues, though the percentage is likely much higher. Almost none of these incarcerated individuals receive adequate or proper mental health treatment.

This is no surprise, as jails and prisons are not designed to treat mental health patients. They are designed to torture and punish. Any person who takes a moment to study the details of a jail’s structure and design will have no problem concluding that it takes a tremendous amount of malicious intent to create such a perversely cruel place. Behind bars, incarcerated people are never referred to by name, and referring to any staff member by anything other than “Sir” or “Ma’am” can result in disciplinary action that can lead to solitary confinement, loss of family visits, and loss of access to the outdoors, all of which are essential to any person’s mental health. Yet jails and prisons nationwide receive millions of dollars in taxpayer money under the guise that the money will be used to fund mental health treatment. 

In Orange County, California, the county sheriff obtained over $260 million dollars in state and county funds to add 900 new beds to his jail empire. “By default, the Orange County jail has become the de facto mental health hospital of Orange County,” Sheriff Don Barnes stated to the media, adding, “If we are going to be the mental hospital of Orange County, we are going to be a good one.” 

black-and-white photo of Santa Monica Jail, empty
Image: Tavo Olmos, Santa Monica County Jail | Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Without the approval or consent of his county’s constituents, this sheriff declared himself the “Sheriff of Mental Health” and robbed his community of $260 million to construct a jail that records from the California Board of State and Community Corrections show is already below capacity.

The mental health crisis in prisons and jails will not be fixed by adding 900 more jail beds, but rather, by using those millions to hire doctors and therapists in the community to treat mental health before it results in someone’s incarceration. Any place that disproportionately hires more deputies than mental health counselors and therapists is not a mental health hospital, and it should not be receiving the funding that community mental health services outside of jails are in desperate need of. Law enforcement officers are not trained mental health professionals. 

In jails and prisons, law enforcement officials have the authority to override a doctor’s orders on how to treat a patient, effectively nullifying mental health recommendations by experts. Jails and prisons don’t just rob people of their humanity, they rob them of their identity, too. 

As evidence clearly shows, this problem transcends the boundaries of jails and prisons. Each year, over 600,000 people are released from prisons and another 9 million are released from jails. At least 95% of people who are incarcerated will be released at some point. Communities are left without the means to help these individuals reintegrate into society, as the funding wagered on jails and prisons provides no results, contributes to the problem, and leaves community coffers empty of money that could be used on meaningful rehabilitative services and mental health treatment.

Because I knew that John was set to return to his cell at any moment and I feared for his safety, I pressed the intercom button inside of my cell and explained to the deputies what had happened.

Suddenly, a swarm of deputies ran into our sector toward where John and I were sitting. The deputies surrounded John and began screaming for him to lay on his stomach and to put his hands behind his back. The fear in John’s face felt like a punch to my stomach.

When John needed help, I didn’t know exactly how to help him, but just sitting together with him in whatever he was going through, even though I couldn’t fully understand what he was experiencing, brought him back from that dark place in his mind. When he was surrounded by deputies, they shattered that moment of human connection and dragged him back into panic.

When someone is suicidal in the jail, it isn’t treated the way a mental health clinician would treat it. The first thing that happens is cops come in, bark orders to get down, approach the person shouting aggressively, cuff them up, and take them to the area known as the loop — a central waiting area. There is no compassion, no human connection. They write “suicidal” across the cell window and leave the person there for up to 48 hours, until a doctor or psychologist gives the order for them to go where they house people who are suicidal. Guards remove all the person’s clothes and all the linen, blankets, and items from the cell, because jail policy considers these things to be potential tools for suicide. 

They are left with nothing. The cells are so cold that they are virtually walk-in refrigerators. To replace their clothes, the person is given a thick, stiff apron to put over their body. Most of the body is left exposed to the cold and to the eyes of passing guards, nurses, and maintenance workers. They post a guard in front of their cell door to observe them and take notes, but the guard never speaks to the person. No one asks if they are OK or gives them counseling. Nobody helps.

The person is left there, alone and essentially naked, until they finally break and give the guard what they’re looking for: an “I’m not suicidal” response. In any crisis, jail officials only ask if the person is suicidal. They don’t care what the person is specifically going through. If the answer is yes, this process begins. If the answer is no, the person isn’t provided with any support at all.

In recent years, there has been a rise in suicides and overdoses in the jails nationally. Instead of hiring more therapists and doctors, this Orange County jail hired more guards to do “walks,” pacing the halls to check on people inside of their cells, including people deemed suicidal. 

These safety checks happen every 45 minutes. The deputy glances through the cell window to determine whether the person is still alive, then continues past. Sometimes guards don’t even look into the cell as they walk by.

A 45-minute window is long enough for a determined person to overdose or attempt suicide. A safety check won’t keep anyone safe from suicide. Surveillance won’t treat the root problem — the conditions of our confinement are so bad that people will do anything to escape. The suffering that comes with being incarcerated is what leads people to attempt suicide or use drugs. Even if the jail were to hire more therapists, those therapists could never change the isolation, pain, and fear that people who attempt suicide or overdose in jail are running from. That suffering is what needs to be treated, and that suffering is rooted in our incarceration. 

After I pushed that intercom button and told the guards that John had almost jumped off the tier, the quietness between us turned to chaos. John began to panic and scream. I was stunned by the extreme response from law enforcement and immediately regretted alerting them to what had occurred. John needed to be treated kindly by a doctor or a therapist, but, instead, he got the brutality of the law.