Aaron Hernandez’s Death Brings to Light A Harsh Truth About Life in Prison

April 19th 2017

Ethan Simon

Aaron Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for murder, was found dead Wednesday morning in his cell at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts, in what's being reported as a hanging death.

The former NFL player's death underscores one of the more troubling realities about jail and prison.

"Mr. Hernandez hanged himself utilizing a bedsheet that he attasched to his cell window. Mr. Hernandez also attempted to block his door from the inside by jamming the door with various items," according to a statement released by the Massachuetts Department of Corrections. 

On April 14, the former New England Patriots tight end was found not guilty of a 2012 double murder — a drive-by shooting in Boston. He was, however sentenced to four or five years in prison for unlawfully carrying a .38-caliber revolver, the New York Times reports.

But his acquittal in that murder case remains inconsequential, as Hernandez was already serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin J Lloyd, a semiprofessional football player who was dating Hernandez's fianceé's sister.

Many on Twitter were conflicted about Hernandez's death because while suicide is always tragic, Hernandez was a convicted murderer.

Since 2000, suicide has been one of the leading causes of death in local American jails.

"In 2013, a third (34 percent) of jail inmate deaths were due to suicide," according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The BJS also notes that in 2014, the suicide rate in local jails was was 50 per 100,000 inmates and that the average suicide rate in the United States was 12.93 per 100,000.

Aaron Hernandez

The suicide rate in state prisons is much lower than that of local jails.

State prisons see much lower suicide rates than local jails. While it might seem that inmates serving life sentences, like Hernandez, would be most prone to suicide, in fact, the opposite is true. "The rate of suicide in local jails — which generally holds people detained pretrial or convicted of low-level offenses — is far greater than that of state prisons or the American population in general," said Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative. According to The Huffington Post, 26 percent of jail suicides occur within just three days of incarceration.

"There are a number of reasons for why this could be true such as the disproportionate number of people in jails suffering from mental health challenges or substance abuse or because people are sometimes being booked into jails in their most desperate state," according to a 2016 brief by the Prison Policy Initiative.

"Risking a massive over-generalization, prisons do tend to be better funded, more stable, and provide better health services than jails," said Kajstura.

Prison Cell

"But they are far from a model," he added. Kajstura also noted that the massive numbers of people moving in and out of local jails on any given day make it hard to set up a coherent system for dealing with mental health challenges.

What can we do?

The solutions, it seems, are fairly simple. "Providing adequate mental health services in jails (and prisons) would be a good start," said Kajstura.

But some critics note that the conditions in prison are not conducive to mental well-being. Hernandez, for example, was kept in a solitary cell. Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge told reporters that solitary cells at Souza Barownowski measure eight by ten feet, and that inmates are afforded very limited human contact, reports Masslive.com.

"Suicide rates are disproportionately high among the punitively entombed, as are hallucinations, violent episodes, panic, paranoia, and self-mutilation," Jeffery Kulger wrote in Time.

Solitary Confinement Protest

Indeed, solitary confinement can actually drive inmates to suicidal thoughts. Calls to end the practice are common, and in 2015, New York City's Rikers Island banned the practice for inmates under 21.

So, however you feel about Aaron Hernandez, one thing is clear: the conditions of our prisons and jails should be of concern to everyone.