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Arkansas inmate suicide rate highest since ’01

12-10-2007 Arkansas:

As they struggled with a bedsheet knotted into a noose, correctional officers noted Scott D. Walls’ pale face. Blood spotted his white prison jumpsuit.

The 46-year-old Garland County man, convicted in 2001 of a sex crime, was the first prison suicide of the year.

Four more men would follow suit by Thanksgiving, giving the Arkansas prison system the dubious distinction of having a suicide rate so far this year of more than twice the national average.

An off icer found Walls hanging from his cell bars just minutes after making a security check midafternoon on Jan. 3, according to an Arkansas State Police report.

By the time 19-year-old Patrick Collins hung himself on Thanksgiving Day, the Department of Correction had its highest suicide total in six years.

Prison officials call this year’s suicides, like the six in 2001, aberrations — unexplainable spikes that need to be compared against only nine suicides in the five intervening years. Since 1988, they say, the state inmate suicide rate is closer to the nationwide average.

If inmates want to kill themselves, they will, prison officials say.

“I don’t think if someone is determined to kill themselves, we can come up with a way to prevent it,” said Wendy Kelley, the department’s deputy director for health and correctional services.

That thought is echoed by at least two other state prison officials.

But experts say that Arkansas is ignoring national trends toward revamping isolation units to provide more mental health care and reduce the risk of suicide.

Since 2000, 23 Arkansas inmates have committed suicide — 35 percent higher than the national prison rate of 14 per 100, 000.

And, during the past seven years, Arkansas inmates killed themselves at about double the rate of the general population.

Nationally, prison suicides have declined by more than half since 1980, when the rate was similar to Arkansas’ 2007 rate of about 35 per 100, 000.

That drop, which has narrowed the gap between suicides in prison and the general population to negligible levels, is the result of decades of change and closer attention paid to suicide risk among inmates, said Lindsey Hayes, project director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, who has tracked prison suicides since 1980.

Every prison official interviewed said he mourns every inmate suicide and each death deals a serious blow to inmate and staff morale.

Still, the argument that convicts killing themselves isn’t a cause for much concern has its proponents outside prison walls. For that, Hayes offers moral and legal justifications for why it’s important to care about inmate suicide.

“We should care because it’s a human life. Simply that. They’ve been convicted of a crime, but the state still has a moral responsibility for their safety. And the state, by the way, is required by various federal laws to provide adequate medical and mental health care to those inmates, and that includes suicide prevention,” Hayes said.

All five inmates who killed themselves this year did so while being held in some kind of isolation. But prison officials say no immediate changes are planned in the department’s isolation policies.

An authority on inmate suicides, Hayes, who helped make changes at Massachusetts’ troubled prisons earlier this year after 10 suicides in 2005-06, said sentiments like those expressed by Correction Department officials need an adjustment. “If the systemic attitude is that if an inmate wants to kill himself, [he ] will, that [attitude ] is starting off on the wrong foot. It’s impeding your prevention efforts,” Hayes said. The state needs to aggressively confront any possible gaps in its procedures that have allowed this rate to climb so high, Hayes said.

DYING ALONE Walls committed suicide just four days after being placed in an isolation cell at the Varner Supermax Unit for failing to obey an order and indecent exposure on Christmas Day. Stephen Partin, the next inmate to commit suicide, had been in isolation at the East Arkansas Regional Unit at Brickeys for about a month when he hanged himself just five days after Walls.

Mitchell Gustafson hurled himself from a third-story tier to the concrete floor below at the Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff on Sept. 14.

Gustafson, a career criminal, had just returned to prison to serve a 222-year sentence and was being held in a single cell, as all inmates are during intake, their preliminary evaluation upon arriving in prison.

He had been deemed suicidal and placed under watch before his death, according to a state police report.

On Nov. 3, Andre T. Washington hanged himself in an isolation cell at Brickeys.

Less than three weeks later, Collins did the same at Varner.

An officer in the isolation wing at Varner noticed that Collins had “been looking strange all day” when she went to get him some toilet paper. When she returned, he had hanged himself and was dead.

The investigations into Walls’, Gustafson’s and Collins ’ deaths have been closed by state police. Partin’s and Washington’s cases remain open with the investigative files exempt from public disclosure.

Prison officials don’t see a connection that all died in isolation. And only two of the five inmates who killed themselves had been previously treated for mental illness, they said.

“There hasn’t been anything that struck me as a pattern,” said Kelley, whose duties include suicide prevention.

The inmates who ended up in isolation, with the exception of Gustafson, did so for breaking prison rules — fighting, disobeying orders and otherwise misbehaving. Those inmates are more likely to be impulsive and emotional, said Dina Tyler, the department’s spokesman.

“They end up in isolation because they have adjustment issues,” she said. “This is a troubled population, and they’re in a situation that they don’t like.” Hayes, the prison suicide expert, agreed, saying that most isolation suicides happen within days or weeks of an inmate being placed there.

“There is a high degree of anxiety, a high degree of anger for [their perception of ] being unduly punished, their sentence perhaps extended or parole considerations removed. Their previous housing has been lost,” he said, adding that’s precisely why more attention needs to be paid to prevent them taking their own life.

More mental health resources need to be directed away from intake and toward isolation wings, Hayes said. Massachusetts responded to its increase in suicides by creating mental health units designed to house inmates that need to be separated from the general population, largely to keep a close eye on those most likely to harm themselves. One 60-bed unit is scheduled to open in about a month, said Diane Wiffin, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Wiffin said she could not estimate the cost of that unit or two more in the planning stages. But doing a thorough pre-isolation mental health examination is crucial, Hayes said, as is making sure adequate follow-up services are provided.

CHANGES MADE When the last spike in Arkansas prison suicides occurred in 2001, some changes were made in the state’s prisons. The top of some cells have been blocked off so a noose can’t be looped through the bars. Cameras have been put in some isolation cells at the Grimes Unit in Newport. And prison mental health workers now visit each isolation cell three times a week.

More needs to be done, Hayes said.

“It’s not just making rounds three times a week and saying, ‘How are you feeling today ?’” Hayes said. “It has to be every day.” Suicide prevention is taught to all security staff members while they are in the training academy and again in annual continuing education courses. Hayes is now scheduled to teach one of those courses this spring, Tyler said.

And discussions among the Board of Corrections and prison administrators about how to prevent suicides is under way. Nothing has been decided yet, and the substance of the talks is secret, officials said.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss what we might change,” Kelley said.

Board of Corrections member Mary Parker, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock criminologist, said the state is open to successful models from other states, like Massachusetts, but what works in one state might not be successful in another.

“Something that Massachusetts is doing might be a better match for the population they have,” Parker said.

And preventing many suicides, Parker said, ultimately comes down to factors outside of the state’s control.

“We can’t control who comes to us,” Parker said. “Some years [suicides are ] low. Some years [they are ] high.... When someone wants to commit suicide, there’s not a flashing sign on their forehead saying, ‘ I want to kill myself.’” Margaret Winter considers that kind of statement to be its own kind of warning.

Winter was the lead attorney in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that challenged conditions in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison, winning a settlement this year that promises wide-reaching changes in that state’s isolation procedures.

Winter said that, generally, when state officials say inmates who want to kill themselves will find a way to do so, it raises troubling questions.

“To me, what it suggests is that when there is such a high rate of suicides and they say there was no reason to believe they were in jeopardy, there’s something wrong with that picture. If meaningful screening is going on, people like that should be identified.” Kelley said she believes that while there might be room for improvement, Arkansas has a good suicide prevention system already in place.

No one apparently noticed Walls’ torment until investigators searched his nearly bare isolation cell at the Supermax and found two notes that presented a grim portrait.

He wrote to his victim, whom he began having sex with when she was 16, begging her to tell the truth and report to authorities that the two had a consensual relationship.

Another note decried his exclusion from a sexual offender class needed for parole.

“I am so sick sick to actually believe in truth + honor,” read the unaddressed note. “Help me get rid of these sick concepts so I can be normal like you.” ..more.. by CHARLIE FRAGO

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