In April 2017, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts. His death focused the attention of state authorities, and the public, on the problem of prisoner suicides.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson expressed surprise and shock at the news, having had several conversations with Hernandez at the jail. The state’s longest-serving sheriff, first elected in 1988, Hodgson enjoyed brief national fame when he offered to supply prisoner labor to build a wall for President Trump on the U.S.-Mexico border. He was then invited by the GOP majority to address the U.S. House on “sanctuary cities,” offering his opinion that officials in such jurisdictions should be jailed.
Following Hernandez’s suicide, a Boston Globe article cited data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, that ranked Massachusetts fourth among state prison systems for suicides, with a rate of 32 per 100,000 prisoners – twice the national average between 2001 and 2014.
In 2017, fourteen Massachusetts prisoners committed suicide – four in state prisons and 10 in county jails. State Senator Jamie Eldridge – whose district includes the facility where Hernandez was being held on a life sentence for the 2013 murder of an acquaintance – said the high suicide rate speaks to “a toxic culture in the prisons.”
“Corrections officials are not only tasked with keeping inmates alive but helping to rehabilitate them,” he stated. “The fact that they can’t keep them alive is deeply disturbing.”
Criminal justice reform is a topic on the current agenda in the state legislature, thanks to a bill that Senator Eldridge introduced to form a special commission to determine both the causes of and solutions to the problem of prisoner suicides. “Once every two or three months a prisoner commits suicide in Massachusetts,” he noted.
“We could use more mental health clinicians who can make sure how people like Mr. Hernandez are doing mentally,” agreed Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “People get despondent. They are locked in cells 19 hours a day.”
Statistics from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) show that since 2012, over twice as many prisoners in local jails have committed suicide as those in state prisons, even though the population in the two systems are of similar size.
NECIR reported that many prisoners arrive in county lockups plagued with the “initial shock of confinement,” as well as additional factors such as drug withdrawal, mental illness and other health problems.
Massachusetts has 13 county jails operated by sheriffs that hold a total of 10,500 detainees. The state prison system has a population of around 9,500 prisoners serving sentences generally in excess of 2½ years.
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian, who also serves as president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, said about 42 percent of newly-jailed prisoners need detoxification and 50 percent have a history of mental illness. Calling his job “a tremendous struggle with this population,” he bemoaned the fact that media attention focuses more on successful suicides than on attempts that are prevented by jailers.
“It’s never how many people you have pulled off a wire or a rope or a towel, how many people have you stopped from killing themselves or harming themselves because of the good work you are doing,” Koutoujian remarked.
The Barnstable County Correctional Facility has a suicide prevention-equipped cell that sports breakaway wall hooks and special windows. Nevertheless, a 35-year-old mother of two managed to commit suicide at the jail in summer 2017.
Jessica DiCesare hanged herself several weeks after being arrested on charges of drug possession and theft. State police who investigated her death found notes in her cell that read, “We are treated like sub-animals here,” and “I want to die.”
Her mother, Sue DiCesare, said that because her daughter struggled with drug addiction and mental illness, she had refused to pay her $500 bail, believing Jessica faced more danger out of jail than inside.
“I thought she would be safe, thought it was a safe place for her to be,” she said. “It turned out that it wasn’t.”
In February 2018, Barbara Kice filed a wrongful death suit against Sheriff Hodgson and his staff at the Bristol County House of Correction over the May 2015 suicide of her son, Brandon St. Pierre. Although the 32-year-old had revealed his suicide intentions to a doctor, he was placed in solitary confinement where he hanged himself with a bed sheet.
“I hope that Bristol County will learn one good lesson on really focusing on these inmates that show mental instability,” said Kice, whose son was being held on a charge related to an incident of suspected road rage. “Pay attention to them. Give them the help they deserve. They are human beings.”
Between 2006 and 2017, 16 men and women killed themselves at Bristol County’s jail, accounting for one quarter of all jail suicides in Massachusetts during that period – even though the facility’s population represented just 13 percent of all detainees in the state’s county jails.
Kice’s lawsuit is one of four alleging that Bristol County and Sheriff Hodgson place mentally ill, drug addicted and suicidal prisoners in solitary confinement and fail to provide the mental health treatment they need.
Another suit was filed by David Prado, father of Devon Prado, who committed suicide while being held in segregation at the Bristol County House of Correction in September 2014. The 28-year-old mother suffered from bipolar disorder, anxiety and drug addiction, all of which should have made her an “obvious suicide risk,” her family claimed.
“What happened to her should never have happened,” said David Prado’s attorney, Mark Itzkowitz.
A separate lawsuit seeks information about the 2013 suicide of Aaron Brito, a day after he arrived at the jail on robbery charges. His mother, Deborah Taylor, said jail staff should have known that the single father had an increased risk of suicide due to his history of substance abuse dating to a prescription for Percocet to treat a back injury.
“It is the most tragic thing that can happen to anyone, to lose a child by suicide,” Taylor lamented.
Another suicide victim at the jail was Michael Ray, who hanged himself in June 2017 while awaiting trial on armed robbery charges. He also had a history of drug abuse and mental health problems, for which he unsuccessfully sought help from jail staff, according to his fiancée, Kellie Pearson.
“He would scream at me, ‘There is no help here, there is no help here,’” she said.
A state police investigation found that surveillance cameras weren’t working in the unit where Ray was being held. He was discovered by a sheriff’s deputy who “was so nervous, he could not break the glass” to access a tool to cut down Ray’s body. Sheriff Hodgson said the cameras would have monitored only hallways, so the lack of video coverage was not critical.
Additional surveillance equipment was not a top priority for the county’s limited budget, he added, saying, “We are still working on trying to get a roof that doesn’t leak here.”
Though not the only sheriff’s department facing wrongful death suits over prisoner suicides, Bristol County has been named in more suicide-related complaints than any other Massachusetts county.
After the attention garnered by the prisoner suicides at his jail, Sheriff Hodgson ordered an internal investigation into seven of the deaths. But no evidence was found of inappropriate actions by jail staff.
“Monday morning quarterbacking about suicides is a dangerous thing to do because every case is different,” he stated. “We never want to lose anybody.”
Prisoners’ Legal Services attorney Bonnie Tenneriello said more needs to be done to protect troubled prisoners. A 2010 study commissioned by the state produced a 22-point plan authored by Lindsay Hayes, a recognized expert on prisoner suicides with the National Centers on Institutions and Alternatives. Yet the state still does not have any operational standards for county jails to follow.
“The problem is there’s no effective oversight of the county facilities,” Tenneriello said. “Prisoners are suffering unnecessarily.” She also cited the problem of mentally ill prisoners being “warehoused in solitary confinement” for up to 23 hours a day.
High prisoner suicide rates in Massachusetts have been a long-standing problem. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.20; April 2009, p.34].
In August 2017, convicted sex offender Richard Gillis hanged himself at the Massachusetts Treatment Center (MTC) in Bridgewater, a secure facility reserved for prisoners considered sexually dangerous. Gillis, who had been imprisoned almost continually since a 1990 rape conviction, was appealing his civil commitment to MTC.
“The fact that Gillis was a mental health patient in the custody of the [Department of Correction] raises concerns about his monitoring and treatment before he died,” said Gillis’ attorney, Michael Nam-Krane.
In September 2017, David McKinley, 29, hanged himself at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth. A drug abuser, McKinley had also been civilly committed to the former minimum-security prison.
While acknowledging concern over those suicides, along with two others in state prisons in 2017, DOC officials said they could not identify a pattern. But prisoner advocates argued the deaths of Gillis and McKinley pointed to the unsuitability of housing substance abusers and the mentally ill in prison-like settings.
Sources: www.bostonglobe.com, www.news.wgbh.org, www.turnto10.com, www.reuters.com
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