The Murder of Minds: Prison Suicides

We had another suicide in Souza-Baranowski prison yesterday. It is the umpteenth suicide since January of 1979, when a decision was made to enforce punishment and do away completely with any "foolish" notion of the idea of rehabilitation as a tool to curb crime inside the prison system — or outside, for those who one day might get there. This would mean more than 98% of those already doing time.

The numbers are staggering. We have surpassed what could reasonably be considered an epidemic proportion of men and women in the state of Massachusetts taking their own lives. The numbers are only as important as a single digit of one: each one tragic to those who are left behind to mourn the loss. Mothers still weep and children still remain fatherless or motherless, while others may reasonably question the why of it all.

To better understand the epistemology of suicides in prison, a study and research project was done by Lindsay M. Hayes of the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives. Presented on January 31,2007, it was entitled "Technical Assistance Report on Suicide Prevention Practices Within the Massachusetts Department of Correction."

In part. this study shows that as of December of 2006, the Mass. Department of Correction (DOC) held approximately 10,500 inmates in 18 Correctional facilities. Since 2000, the DOC has experienced 18 inmate suicides in its facilities, with more than 60 percent occurring during 2005-2006. The suicide rate within the Mass. DOC during the past ten years was 26.9 deaths per 100,000 inmates. According to the most recent national data, the suicide rate in federal, state, and private prisons throughout the country during 2002 was 14 deaths per 100,000 inmates. As such, the suicide rate within the DOC was almost double the national average during this 10-year period, and it was several times greater than the national average in 2006.

Leslie Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services inmate rights group, said: "The worst problem in prison isn't violence, it is boredom. They don't have enough job training, they don't have enough education. Add in the overcrowding, and they are at a breaking point." (Associated Press, December 27, 2006).

On March 9, 2007, the Boston Globe reported that the Disability Law Center, which provides legal help for the disabled, sued the Department of Correction in US District Court in Boston after a year long investigation. During the investigation, the advocates questioned more than 220 inmates in segregation units at two maximum security prisons (Souza- Baranowski Correctional Center at Shirley, and MCI Cedar Junction at Walpole). They found that at least two dozen of the 220 segregated inmates displayed signs of mental illness. Extrapolating from those numbers, advocates estimated that hundreds of prisoners in the state with mental health issues are being confined in such units, which is demoralizing for any inmate but exceeds "the limit of human endurance" for those with psychological problems, the Globe said.

In Massachusetts, the suit says, cells in segregation units often have minimal furnishings, little if any natural light, and solid doors with a narrow slot used to deliver food. Inmates are allowed out only an hour a day to exercise (five days a week, in addition), and some are so depressed that they decline to do so.

In 1890, the US Supreme Court noted that even healthy prisoners often become psychotic and agitated in such conditions. "Now if you take someone who is already mentally ill and put them in an environment that is supposed to be painful psychologically, what do you expect?"

It has been my unfortunate experience to note that, when any prisoner seeks help either for physical or psychological problems, they are punished for doing so. I do not claim to be an expert on mental health nor of the care medical providers deliver. I can only write from my personal views as someone who has been in the prison system for 34 years.

If someone is ignorant enough to seek help under the belief that the DOC cares about them, they are sadly mistaken — and that mistake will be proven in the way they are treated for having the audacity to fall ill.

Someone might go up to a guard, a case worker, or even a mental health worker and say that they are depressed and have given some thought to hurting themselves. They are immediately taken to a strip cell in what is euphemistically called a "Health Service Unit" or HSU, and they are stripped down to their under shorts in an empty and filthy cell, where they can be observed on either "eye-ball" or 15-minute watches. They may be interviewed by a mental health worker, who will most often prescribe some sort of chemical therapy, which in many cases exacerbates the already deeply rooted problem. They are very quick to hand out a pill or two to act in lieu of their being overburdened with case loads, or to be able to write that the prisoner was "treated," thereby covering their asses if and when the prisoner hangs it up. In other words, he or she is punished into having second thoughts about hurting themselves. When they get out of that situation, they will relate to others the kind of punishment they received for having sought help in the first place. Those who hear the stories, as I think most all of us have, will now decide to just kill themselves, rather than to be punished for thinking about killing themselves. The same approach is applied to anyone who, again, has the audacity to fall sick. You are locked in a strip cell labeled "HSU hospital room," and you are punished. It is all about punishment and always will be. It matters not how many kill themselves or die from not seeking "help."

The recommendations by Lindsay M. Hayes, are a start, but they deal with identifying those in need of careful watch and what to do with them if they should attempt suicide. They do not at all, in any way whatsoever, deal with the root causes of what might have provoked the initial decision to end it. "Mentally ill" is a label. Where did it begin? Were the conditions of confinement in any way responsible for it?

It is my contention that this epidemic of suicide in Massachusetts prisons is not an anomaly specifically related to any particular state. Suicide is not geographical. It is despair. Simply stated, with much more complex reasoning behind that one word. If we have the highest suicide rate in the entire nation, what is it about Massachusetts that causes them? In the 1970s in segregation units, we had our property. We had the televisions and radios to distract us, and we had a minimum of canteen each week to make us at least feel not so isolated from everyone else in the prison population. It was not about coddling prisoners back then. No one wants to suggest such a thing. However, that said, in Nolan V. Scafati, 306 F. Supp. I:

A Prisoner is one whose freedom has been intentionally restricted in the interests of the safety of society, his own reform, and a deterrence of misconduct by him or others. While he is not sent to prison for punishment, he has been sent there as punishment . . . to the preclusion of invidious discrimination.

Just losing one's liberty was more than enough. The same thing can be said about segregation units. If a person is on sanctioned disciplinary restrictions for a reason, the purpose of segregation units is to isolate those who by word or deed have clearly demonstrated that they are a threat to the well being of themselves or others. When someone is removed from the general population and placed in a segregation cell for 24 hours a day, "Mission Accomplished!" Anything further inflicted upon this person is punishment and nothing less.

Once in segregation for committing an infraction of any rule or regulation, a person then sees a disciplinary board to determine appropriate punishment for that particular offense. They are then sanctioned to do fifteen days (the most allowed by law at anyone time) in isolation with loss of privileges.

Any suggestions that I, a prisoner, may boldly make will be seen as a self-serving diatribe. Yet having served off and on over 18 years in segregation, I have earned the right to call it as I see it.

There were very few suicides in the early 1970s, therefore someone must have been doing something right. Prisoners have not gotten mentally weaker since those days. They have just been punished more onerously. Those who may not have had any serious mental health issues will manifest them in a negative way simply because the culture of prisons has so drastically changed from trying to be humane to being draconian in its treatment of people.

There are many who think we are all throw-away human beings and deserve to hang for using drugs or robbing gas stations or even harming others. That makes those who entertain such notions no better than the men and women who commit a crime against them.

I have seen several men hanging over my long years, and I can promise those who read this statement that it is an ugly and despicable way to die. Yet, given the nature of punishment, it is not hard to understand why they might choose this way out.

Joe Labriola
March 12, 2007

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