By Jonathan Saltzman
The Boston Globe
July 16, 2010
Suicides in Massachusetts state prisons are occurring at a rate more than four times the national average this year, prompting advocates and inmates’ relatives to call for an urgent response from state officials — and spurring the Patrick administration yesterday to hire a suicide prevention specialist.
With the discovery of an eighth inmate found hanging in his cell at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater yesterday morning, Massachusetts prisons have reached a suicide rate of about 71 per 100,000 inmates so far this year, more than quadruple the average annual national rate of 16 per 100,000 inmates reported by the US Bureau for Justice Statistics.
Even if no additional inmates commit suicide this year, the eight deaths to date match the highest annual total in the past 14 years, according to Department of Correction statistics.
“To hear that so many people have committed suicide, it just boggles my mind,’’ said Antonia Chasse, of Westfield, whose brother, Ramon DeJesus, a 58-year-old convicted murderer, was found hanging in his cell on June 2 at MCI-Norfolk. “This is a place where individuals are being watched 24 hours a day.’’
Alarmed by the surge in suicides, Leslie Walker, executive director of Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the state should rehire the suicide prevention specialist, Lindsay M. Hayes, of Mansfield, who worked on a plan for the Correction Department in 2007.
Late yesterday afternoon, Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the prison system, said the department had indeed rehired Hayes, project director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, and asked him to examine each recent suicide.
In February 2007, following seven suicides the previous year, Hayes issued a 63-page report that found serious shortcomings in the state’s handling of inmates at risk for suicide. The state immediately pledged to comply with all 29 recommendations in his report, and suicides fell.
But advocates question whether the state has lived up to its promise. Inmates who spent time on suicide watches in the past two years, Walker said, told her that officials placed them in barren cells, made them change from regular prison garb into gowns, revoked routine privileges such as family visits, and deprived them of belongings, including books, mail, family photographs, and toiletries.
Hayes’s 2007 report had urged that such practices be avoided because they exacerbate a sense of isolation and discourage some inmates from reporting suicidal feelings, but Walker said they persist. “There’s a lack of vigilance and compliance with Hayes’s recommendations,’’ said Walker, who added that she planned to write Commissioner Harold W. Clarke about what she called “an epidemic, a crisis’’ within the state prison system. In response, the Correction Department’s Wiffin said suicide prevention is a top priority and “we have made significant investments to protect the prisoners in our care.’’
The department has opened several relatively small treatment and behavior modification units for mentally ill prisoners and made cells more resistant to suicide, she said. All new prison employees undergo eight hours of suicide prevention training. Prison officials, she said, consult mental health professionals about appropriate possessions and privileges that inmates on suicide watches can have. “Despite these efforts, eight prisoners, including one this morning, have tragically ended their lives,’’ she said. “While privacy concerns prevent us from commenting about specific cases, our initial reviews have found no common trends.” The state’s prison system has more than 11,000 inmates.
The inmate who officials said committed suicide yesterday was John Pappageris, a 51-year-old former Waltham man serving three to four years for breaking and entering and a concurrent one-year sentence for assault and battery on a public servant, Wiffin said. He was found hanging in his cell at 5:15 a.m. by a correction officer and taken to Morton Hospital and Medical Center in Taunton, where he was pronounced dead at 6:27 a.m., Wiffin said. Prison officials notified the Plymouth County district attorney’s office, as is routine with such deaths.
Pappageris was a client of Prisoners’ Legal Services, had a lengthy history of mental illness, and had attempted suicide several times before, according to Walker. His aunt, Lucille Mahakian, of Watertown, said last night that Pappageris had never gotten over the suicide of his mother in 1971. He mutilated himself in prison and ate batteries, she said. “They knew of his history with mental issues,’’ she said of prison officials. “He was on their watch, and this happened.’’
A Globe Spotlight Team series in December 2007 revealed deepening mental illness and misery behind the walls of the state’s prisons and identified numerous problems, including botched background screenings on suicidal inmates, missing mental health records, and skipped security rounds by correction officers.
Some advocates for inmates say this year’s increase in suicides tells only part of the story. “The number of completed suicides is always the tip of the iceberg,’’ said Rick Glassman, litigation director of the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts, a nonprofit group that advocates for people with disabilities, including mental illness. “What lies beneath it is the number of suicide attempts and self-injurious behavior.’’
In March 2007, the center sued the state in federal court, alleging that hundreds of mentally ill prisoners were kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, leading to suicides and self-mutilation. The suit called on the state to build large special treatment units similar to those constructed in other states as a result of federal lawsuits.
In November 2008, Clarke told the Globe he expected the suit would be settled out of court shortly with the announcement of plans to build maximum-security residential treatment units. But a year later, lawyers for the prison system disclosed that the Patrick administration had shelved the plans because of the state’s fiscal crisis. The suit is pending.
In addition to wanting the state to bring Hayes back to study the latest surge in suicides, Walker and other advocates for prisoners want the Legislature to pass a bill to appoint a permanent panel to review problems in the prisons and recommend improvements.
State Representative Kay Khan, Democrat of Newton and a psychiatric nurse, has sponsored the bill in every session over the past 15 years but said it has gotten nowhere, largely because of opposition from the union that represents correction officers. Khan said she believes top prison officials are doing the best they can but face daunting challenges: The vast majority of inmates have mental health or substance abuse problems, the state has cut prison budgets, and few lawmakers are interested in what happens in prisons.
Hayes, the suicide prevention specialist, could not be reached yesterday but in an interview Wednesday cautioned about reading too much into any annual total for prison suicides. He prefers to examine suicide trends over 10-year periods, he said, because annual totals can vary sharply.
Nonetheless, he said that this year’s surge is discouraging and that he would gladly study its causes. “I think it would be very accurate to say that the trend is upward, and I would hope that the department is very concerned about that and that they’re looking at it,’’ he said.