For someone to die prematurely while incarcerated, a lot has to go wrong.

Even so, it’s happening more and more. 2022 was one of the deadliest years on record for Mainers in custody at one of the state’s prisons or jails — and supposedly in their care — following years of it getting worse, here and around the country.

There are a lot of reasons why: the raging drug epidemic, the failures of our health care system, COVID-19 and a lack of attention and accountability on the part of the penal system, to name a few.

But in this case, they are all connected by one factor: a lack of interest, at each step, in the fate of the people caught up in the criminal justice system.

How else do you explain the near silence that accompanies these deaths, except from the person’s loved ones and a few brave advocates?

These deaths, to our shame, have become acceptable.

It starts with the failure to provide adequate treatment for people with addiction and mental illness, making it more likely that their problems will instead be handled by police and the courts. It’s not for nothing that our prisons and jails so often are referred to as our new mental institutions.

Once people are incarcerated, they do not receive the care they need, making it more likely a person will reoffend, and their time behind bars more dangerous.

In the last four years, suicide accounted for more than 20% of the deaths in Maine’s jails and prisons, according to a report from WMTW-8. Between May 2020 and July 2022, there were eight deaths by suicide across six different correctional facilities — all deaths by hanging, all using bed sheets, many by people who had indicated they were at risk for self-harm.

There have also been seven deaths by accidental overdose in the last four years, as well as others that call into question the level of care and attention by jail staff.

Part of the problem is the enormous pressure placed on correctional facilities by outside forces.

But there have also been problems with safety, care and supervision that shouldn’t happen under any circumstances. Why are so many people who are at clear risk of suicide left alone? Why are so many unable to get their required medications?

Hard change is necessary, both inside and outside of our correctional facilities.

First, the criminal justice system should incarcerate fewer people, particularly in jails, where most are not convicted but awaiting adjudication. Continue to decriminalize low-level drug offenses. Fund substance use and mental health treatment, and when someone’s illness leads them to run afoul of the law, send them there instead.

Second, taxpayers must give prisons and jails the resources they need – then hold them accountable.

Correctional facilities operate without adequate oversight. It’s a particular problem in jails, each one run by an elected county sheriff who answers only to taxpayers, who in turn care most about the topline cost, not whether people are being treated well.

Maine once tried to create a unified county jail system, with the goal of better using limited statewide resources while improving conditions and oversight. It failed for lack of political support, both statewide and at the county level. Ultimately, no one wanted to take an important step for accountability and efficiency if it meant giving up power.

Will the staggering increase in deaths make them change their minds and work toward a solution?

Will anyone notice if they don’t?

This editorial was reprinted from Portland Press Herald.