Stopping COVID-19 behind bars was an achievable moral imperative. We failed.

This is what happens when a bureaucracy built on punishment is tasked with compassion. It’s like asking the dishwasher to make coffee. That isn’t what it’s for.

Since the 1980s, there have been periodic waves of stories about people mysteriously found hanging in local jails — people arrested for low-level crimes such as petty theft, or drunken driving, or mundane traffic offenses. Inevitably, these flurries of stories have come with speculation that the deaths were murders. It’s hard to imagine why someone would hang himself over a reckless driving charge.

Instead, while there have certainly been plenty of incidents of inmate deaths at the hands of jail staff, most of these deaths were suicides. These suicides themselves don’t occur in waves. They’re pretty consistent. But so often, a high-profile incident gets journalists digging, and they discover the others that have been occurring all along. Once it’s clear that the deaths were suicides after all, the outrage then dies down until the next cycle begins.

Sometimes, a few voices will make the obvious and important point: People who are arrested for low-level offenses should not be committing suicide. And that they are should tell us that there’s something wrong with our jails.