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Prisoner Suicides a Problem in Oklahoma

by Matt Clarke

A rash of suicides at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) in McAlester gave it the highest suicide rate among Oklahoma prisons – six times that of the second-highest.

According to a February 20, 2017 article by Oklahoma Watch, between 2012 and 2015, nine OSP prisoners committed suicide – all by hanging themselves – representing one-third of the 25 suicides in the state prison system during that four-year period. The next-highest numbers of suicides occurred at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center and privately-operated Lawton Correctional Facility, which each reported three.

OSP is the only maximum-security facility the state operates, and houses just 3 percent of the state’s prison population. It is also the only facility for males which places prisoners in long-term administrative segregation – a penalty resulting when offenders “in the general population pose[] a threat to life, property, staff, self, other offenders or to the security or orderly operation of the correctional facility,” according to Department of Corrections (DOC) policy.

“We have monitoring that goes on, treatment that goes on, to try and prevent [prisoner suicides] from happening,” said DOC spokeswoman Terri Watkins. “It’s our ultimate goal for that never to happen. Sadly, it does.”

OSP’s practice of locking prisoners in their cells for 23 hours on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends may be a factor in the facility’s high suicide rate, according to Dr. Jana Morgan, chief mental health officer for Oklahoma’s prison system.

“As people are locked down more and in maximum security settings, the risk [of suicide] goes up,” she said.

Advocacy organizations such as the ACLU and OK CURE, which push for improvements in prison conditions, agree.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the 24-hour-a-day lockdown, where they don’t have yard time,” said Lynn Powell, OK CURE’s president. “There’s less chance for contact. You’re stuck in one spot.”

A 2012 study of OSP’s segregation practices by the Virginia-based consulting firm CNA noted that general population prisoners were treated little better than those in solitary. In almost every other Oklahoma prison reviewed by CNA, there were “specific, graduated differences” between the segregated and general populations. At OSP, the only differences were that general population prisoners could have a cellmate and were allowed to exercise with other prisoners in a chained-in outdoor enclosure. Segregation prisoners were not only prevented from having contact with other prisoners but also had to exercise alone in an underground bunker.

“When you do it to someone – deprive them of basic human interaction, which is something everybody needs – in periods of months or years versus days or a couple of weeks, you’re doing something that changes their psyche and degrades it,” said Brady Henderson, director of the Oklahoma ACLU. “One of the expressions I hear is that it turns people’s brains into tapioca.”

OSP houses long-term and violent prisoners, many of whom suffer from mental illnesses, and the state’s death row is located at the facility. There have also been complaints of inadequate medical and mental health care.

The average OSP prisoner has been held in secure confinement for over four years, despite the fact that fully half have had no major misconduct reports in the past twelve months. Only five of the 142 segregation prisoners at OSP were returned to the general population during 2012; of the prisoners in solitary, 57 percent are prescribed psychotropic medications compared to 36 percent of all state prisoners.

In 2015, then-DOC Director Robert Patton instituted a pilot “step-down” program to shift prisoners from segregation to the general population at OSP. The program began with 10 prisoners and had 55 participants as of January 2017.

Women prisoners are not exempt from suicide. On October 24, 2016, Amber Hilberling, 25, hanged herself at the DOC’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, which is the state’s only facility for women in long-term administrative segregation.

Henderson, with the Oklahoma ACLU, noted it’s important to remember that most prisoners in long-term solitary confinement will one day return to society, where mental health issues exacerbated by their isolation will end up costing taxpayers.

“Even if somebody says I don’t care one bit about the mind or life or soul of that particular inmate, I bet as a taxpayer I’m going to care about the bill I’m going to have to pay when they have to take that inmate to a hospital after a suicide attempt,” he said.

The suicide problem is not limited to state prisons. Of 15 prisoner deaths at the Oklahoma County Jail in 2016, five were likely suicides, county officials said. Two other suicides at the jail, of prisoners Aaron Ducky Spottedcorn and Nhan Thanh Nguyen, occurred in April and July 2017, respectively.

“The jail has an inordinate number of very preventable deaths that are occurring and have been occurring for many years,” Henderson stated.

A 2008 investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded the Oklahoma County Jail was an “unsafe environment” – primarily due to overcrowding. At the time, the facility housed 2,500 prisoners, nearly twice its intended capacity; by 2016 the population had declined only slightly to 2,400.

Still, a 2016 task force headed by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennet – chairman of the NBA franchise Oklahoma City Thunder – did not recommend building a new jail. Rather, the task force said more resources were needed to treat the mental health and addiction problems that were the driving factors behind arrests. 



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