Last July, Massachusetts prison officials logged their eighth suicide in 2010, matching the state’s highest annual total in the past 14 years, according to Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) statistics.
“The number of completed suicides is always the tip of the iceberg,” stated Rick Glassman, litigation director for the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts. “What lies beneath it is the number of suicide attempts and self-injurious behavior.”
“To hear that so many people have committed suicide, it boggles my mind,” said Antonia Chasse, whose brother, Ramon DeJesus, 58, became the sixth suicide in the Massachusetts DOC last year, on June 2, 2010. “This is a place where individuals are being watched 24 hours a day,” she noted.
The state’s seventh prisoner suicide occurred three weeks later on June 23, when Sean Noonan, 27, was found hanging in his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Beyond the eight successful suicides in 2010, there were more than 40 attempted suicides by prisoners.
Sadly, this is not a new problem for Massachusetts prison officials. Seven prisoner suicides in 2007 prompted an extensive investigation by the Boston Globe, which described “deepening mental illness and misery behind the walls of the state’s prisons.”
Investigators found “numerous problems, including botched background screenings on suicidal inmates, missing mental health records, and skipped security rounds” by guards, according to the Globe.
Prison officials responded to the Globe’s investigation by hiring Lindsay M. Hayes, a nationally-recognized suicide prevention expert, to study the 2007 suicides. He issued a 63-page report that found serious deficiencies in the way the DOC handled suicidal prisoners. [See: PLN, April 2009, p.34].
For example, suicidal prisoners were isolated in barren cells, wearing only a gown, stripped of all personal property such as books, mail, family photographs and toiletries, and deprived of visits and other basic privileges. Hayes recommended that the DOC end those practices, warning that they “exacerbate a sense of isolation and discourage some inmates from reporting suicidal feelings.”
Prison officials vowed to comply with all 29 of Hayes’ recommendations, and no Massachusetts state prisoners committed suicide in 2008. However, the Globe found that the DOC never actually implemented many of Hayes’ suggestions, and prisoner suicides spiked again with five in 2009 and eight in 2010.
The philosophical shift underlying the recent increase in suicides is evident in the state’s response to a federal lawsuit filed in March 2007 by the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts, a non-profit advocacy group for people with mental illness and other disabilities. The suit alleged that hundreds of mentally ill prisoners were segregated 23 hours a day, which is commonly known to exacerbate mental illness and cause prisoners to decompensate to the point that they engage in self-mutilation or attempt suicide.
In November 2008, then-DOC commissioner Harold W. Clarke told the Globe he expected the suit would soon be settled, with the announcement of plans to build maximum-security residential treatment units for mentally ill prisoners. A year later, however, DOC lawyers revealed that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had scrubbed those plans due to the state’s budget crisis.
In August 2010, the district court ordered the University of Massachusetts Correctional Health Program, which formerly provided mental health care to prisoners but was not a defendant in the suit, to turn over treatment records for about 25 prisoners who had committed or attempted to commit suicide while held in segregation from 2005 to 2007.
The case continues to drag on. See: Disability Law Center, Inc. v. Massachusetts DOC, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass.), Case No. 1:07-cv-10463-MLW.
There is also an apparent correlation between the spike in suicides and economic-driven layoffs of prison mental health staff, plus the elimination of prison substance abuse and mental health treatment programs due to budget cuts.
Another troubling reason for the state’s high prisoner suicide rate is the fact that few lawmakers care about what happens in prisons, admitted state Representative and psychiatric nurse Kay Khan. Every legislative session for 15 years, Khan has sponsored a bill to appoint a permanent panel to review prison issues and recommend improvements. The bill has died each session, largely due to opposition from the state’s powerful prison guards’ union.
Whatever the reason, DOC officials undeniably failed to heed the advice they paid Hayes for in 2007, with needlessly deadly results. “There’s a lack of vigilance and compliance with Hayes’ recommendations,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Boston-based Prisoner’s Legal Services. Walker called the problem “an epidemic, a crisis” within the DOC in a letter to Commissioner Clarke.
“When the [suicide] numbers got close to this level [in 2007], there was a very large and appropriate reaction from the DOC to remedy a wrong. They contracted with a national suicide prevention expert before the numbers got this high,” Walker noted. “What I don’t see this time is the reaction ... I don’t see any outrage.”
DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin claimed, however, that suicide prevention was a top priority and the DOC had “made significant investments to protect the prisoners in [its] care.” Wiffin touted the DOC’s recently-implemented suicide prevention program, which includes circulating pamphlets in prison common areas to teach staff how to recognize suicidal behavior. She also reported that the DOC had re-hired Hayes to study the 2010 suicides.
Hayes said the recent increase in prisoner suicides was disturbing. “I think it would be very accurate to say that the trend is upward,” he noted. “I would hope that the department is very concerned about that and that they’re looking at it.”
Not everyone thinks suicide prevention is a good idea, though. Some of the people posting on www.masscops.com – an online forum that describes itself as the “Massachusetts Law Enforcement Network” – spoke in favor of more prisoner suicides.
“Do they actually think good people give a shit that these assholes killed themselves.
Good, less $$ to spend on them,” posted masscops.com member OutOfManyOne following the Globe report in 2007. “Prison suicides being a problem? I think prison suicide is a creative solution. The DOC should offer rope and instructions at the prison canteen,” added Killjoy, another site member.
As this issue of PLN goes to press, the Massachusetts DOC has experienced no prisoner suicides in 2011.
Sources: Boston Globe, www.criminaljustice.change.org, www.masscops.com
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