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Connecticut: Rash of Prisoner Suicides Prompt Questions, Concerns

by Michael Rigby

A rash of prisoner suicides in the Connecticut Department of Corrections (CDOC) has exposed serious flaws in the department's suicide prevention policies. The CDOC saw nine prisoner suicides in 2004, many of which could have been prevented.

Joseph Spence is one example. Spence was arrested on June 9, 2004, for allegedly shooting to death his long time girlfriend. A Superior Court judge ordered him held on $2 million bail and remanded him to the CDOC. Noting the crime and certain statements Spence made, the judge also ordered him placed on suicide watch. When he arrived at the Bridgeport Correctional Center, however, prison officials took no action on the judge's order. Spence hanged himself two days later.

As a result of Spence's suicide, along with the May 9, 2004, suicide of Marlin Bugg in the New Haven Correctional Center, two guards have been fired and one has been reprimanded. Bridgeport guard Carroll Rainey and New Haven guard Raphael Gayle were fired for failing to conduct cell inspections. A third guard, New Haven Lt. Rocco Sweat, was formally counseled for failing to conduct complete tours when tours were logged, (and) failure to follow proper policies and procedures in completing tours," the CDOC said. Prison officials said more guards may be disciplined in connection with the two suicides.

Bridgeport attorney Antonio Ponvert, who is representing the family of a prisoner who committed suicide at the McDougall-Walker Correctional Center in 2002, contends the department's suicide prevention efforts have long been inadequate. According to the lawsuit, Scott Walsh, 35a prisoner with paranoid schizophrenia who had repeatedly threatened to kill himselfwas denied his antipsychotic medication and placed in a cell that contained bed sheets and an upper bunk. On June 6, 2002, Walsh tied a sheet to the top bunk and hanged himself.

If you look, there have been dozens and dozens of successful suicides at the Department of Correction, many of them involving inmates in virtually identical circumstances to Walsh," said Ponvert. They're not doing a good job. There has been, by anyone's estimation, an epidemic of suicides since last April. Given the inmate population, it's a very disturbing number." Ponvert went on to say that Connecticut prisoners are not receiving the mental health care required, (living) with substandard supervision and with staff who aren't trained to identify people who are suicidal or do anything about it.

The CDOC's own records portray an environment of flagrant indifference. When Eduardo Velasquez committed suicide on July 21, 2004, at Bridgeport, investigators couldn't determine if the guard had performed the required cell checks every 15 minutes because the security camera had been broken for weeks. Moreover, the prison doctor failed to respond when the Code Blue" was called, leaving Velasquez's care to the guards and a registered nurse.

Even more disturbing is the case of Daniel Becker. When guards discovered Becker hanging in his cell at Hartford on April 18, 2004, they delayed cutting him down for 12 minutes while they waited for a video camera and shears. An investigation report said the guards should have relieved the pressure on Becker's neck until the shears arrived by lifting his body.
David Fathi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington D.C. said that most prison suicides are preventable. The risk of suicide is ever-present, especially (among pre-trial detainees), but sound corrections practice can virtually eliminate suicides," he said. One of the most basic things is regular checks by (staff), because committing suicide takes time. Unfortunately, with crowding, with budget cuts, with understaffing, those checks often aren't done as they should be.

Ponvert believes the CDOC lacks the initiative to adequately address the problems because many prisoners don't have family or others who will press for investigations or bring lawsuits.

I haven't heard of anybody bringing lawsuits for the nine people who (committed suicide in 2004). There could be this ... epidemic of suicides and it's possible that none of them will ever be looked into by anyone out of the DOC (and state police)," he said. Without anyone sort of pressing for change in training or a change in policy and procedure or greater resources & I think the suicides are just going to continue."


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