So far this year, 15 people have died in Maine county jails and prisons, 10 of them in the past four months. That number is higher than any yearly total since 2014, according to a group that recently began tracking in-custody deaths, putting this year on track to set a deadly record.
Family and friends of those who died gathered in Augusta Saturday to draw attention to how many of the deaths this year were preventable, and in doing so, raise awareness of the deadly stakes of incarcerating people who instead need help. At least five people this year died by suicide, and another two died of drug overdoses, the group said.
Their deaths — and perhaps their involvement in the criminal justice system at all — may have been avoided had they received the medical care, substance use treatment and mental health services they needed.
“I would love to say that this is only the system’s fault, but this is a community failure,” said Bruce King, co-executive director of Maine Inside Out, an arts nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated youth.
He was one of 11 speakers to address a crowd that assembled across from the Maine State House at Capitol Park. Like others, he used his time to honor the passing of someone he knew.
Alex Lewis was 21 and had been working on a book of poetry when he died by suicide at the Maine Correctional Center earlier this summer. King read two of Lewis’ poems, in one of several efforts that afternoon to show the often overlooked humanity of people who die behind bars.
Using media reports and obituaries, the group counted 101 people who have died in Maine prisons and jails since 1987. The list is an attempt to create urgency around the issue that many on Saturday said the state badly needs. Some wore shirts with that tally written on the back and the words “stop killing us” emblazoned on the chest. Each death represents the loss of a life but also a hole in the communities and families a person left behind, speakers said.
Indeed, speakers on Saturday not only honored the dead but demanded a different, less punitive approach to addressing the behavior of people who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues.
Funding community-based services and decriminalizing certain offenses, especially related to drugs, is a more effective and humane way to treat people while also keeping the public safe, they said.
“It is so important that the folks in power hear this message,” said Marion Anderson, a formerly incarcerated field organizer with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and one the chief organizers of Saturday’s rally.
Some parts of that message are likely to gain more buy-in than others.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, whose jail has recorded one death every month since May, agreed on the need for greater community services for mental health and substance use, but he pushed back on more progressive initiatives such as decriminalizing certain offenses that send people to jail.
“If you want to limit how many people are in jail, take care of substance use and mental health needs [in the community], then the jails will hold who they are supposed to be holding, and that’s the bad characters who are a danger to public safety,” he said.
In the meantime, three of his correctional officers recently quit because they felt traumatized by seeing people die while in custody, Joyce said, departures that have exacerbated an ongoing staffing crisis at the jail.
“This year has been terrible. Terrible,” the sheriff said. “We have had four [deaths] in four months. One is bad enough.”