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Prison Suicides Defy Precautions

Scores Of Attempts Stopped, Officials Say, But Inmates Still Succeed

October 9, 2005
By DIANE STRUZZI, Courant Staff Writer

Inmate Timothy Ferris told a correctional officer he was thinking he would be better off dead. At 45, he was facing a first-degree larceny charge and getting his first experience in a Connecticut prison.

A clinical social worker talked with Ferris, and he was returned to his cell at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville. On April 8, three days after entering prison, Ferris tied a sheet around his neck and fastened the other end to a top bunk frame.

"Why bother being here, I don't know how to change it," he wrote in a note he left, which was included in an investigative report by the security division of the state Department of Correction.

Ferris became the third of seven inmates to commit suicide in the prison system this year. Last year, there were nine suicides in state jails or prisons; there were four in 2003.

Like the majority of Connecticut inmates who have committed suicide recently, Ferris was awaiting trial. His case illustrates the difficulty of suicide prevention in the correction system. Even if policies and procedures are followed, as officials say they were in Ferris' case, inmates can end up killing themselves.

Union officials point to a lack of staffing, saying there aren't enough correction officers and mental health workers to go around.

Mental health advocates say the system is absorbing more individuals with mental health problems. A review of prison suicides in 2003 and 2004 by the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities showed the majority involved inmates with substance abuse and/or mental health problems.

Correction department officials say they are concerned by the suicide numbers and have taken steps to reassess their policies. They also say corrections staff halted 146 attempted suicides last year.

The suicide numbers have caught the attention of outside agencies. The state Office of Protection and Advocacy has requested documents about individual suicides, and the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., has opened an investigation.

The numbers in Connecticut are "extremely disturbing," said David Fathi, senior staff counsel for the National Prison Project.

"People who are in the prisoners' rights community are very aware and talking about" Connecticut, Fathi said.

Jails and prisons are places "where government controls every aspect of your life, 24 hours a day," he said. "So there's just no excuse for allowing people to get into a situation where they have the inclination and means and time to kill themselves."

The concerns have not been lost on the correction department. Last year, officials hired two experts from the National Institute of Corrections to assess the department's suicide prevention policies. After the seventh suicide this year, Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz called a suicide prevention strategy summit for Friday.

Lindsay Hayes, an expert on suicide prevention in corrections who has consulted with Connecticut in the past, will tour several prisons, review the most recent suicides and on Friday discuss his findings with correction department administrators.

The issue, Lantz said, isn't isolated to Connecticut, but is one that correction institutions around the country are dealing with.

"I'm very concerned about the number of suicides in this agency," Lantz said. "But there are efforts in place that are successful. We know what we do saves lives. ... One thing that has alarmed me is the sheer commitment and dedication of the individual to commit suicide. ...Yes, we have people committing suicide. But every day I get reports that we saved one."

Correction officials say the majority of experts' recommendations are in place, such as eliminating shoelaces, protrusions in cells and other objects that inmates can use to commit suicide. Soon, officials say, they will distribute a pamphlet to visitors so they can notify prison officials if they see potential signs of suicide. Correction employees also were given cards to carry that contain warning signs of suicide.

Nationally, suicide rates in correctional facilities are diminishing. A federal report published in August found that suicide rates in local jails and in state prisons have dropped dramatically since the 1980s.

Connecticut's suicide rate appears high in comparison, but the statistics don't explain that Connecticut is among six states with a combined jail and prison system, which means the system houses both accused and sentenced offenders. Nationally, jails - usually where people first enter the correction system - have a higher rate of suicide because they have a more vulnerable population.

Correction officials say they have found few trends and similarities among the recent inmate suicides in Connecticut, other than a majority have been awaiting trial, a trend that has continued over the past 10 years. Correction officials say they have stepped up their scrutiny of unsentenced inmates coming into the system.

The majority of suicides also have occurred in the state's intake centers, where many inmates enter the system: the Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Corrigan-Radgowski correctional centers; York Correctional Institution; and Manson Youth Institution.

Lawyer Antonio Ponvert III, who has represented families of inmates who died in custody, said more needs to be done.

The department is "still woefully understaffed in terms of mental health and medical staff," he said. "It's naive to say you can have a zero death rate. On the other hand, when you see patterns emerging like the vast majority of these suicides are with sheets tied to beds ... why are you housing them in places with sheets and an upper bunk?"

"We've told them, if they're serious about it we need staffing," said Wayne Meyers, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1565 of the Connecticut Correction Employees union.

Thomas Miles and Reggie Cummings, leaders in AFSCME Local 387, point to the situation at Manson Youth Institution, Webster Correctional Institution and Cheshire Correctional Institution, where they say only two mental health workers cover the three facilities during the evenings and weekends. Miles said there are not enough correction officers on third shift in the majority of facilities, often leaving only one officer to tour cell blocks.

Correction officials counter that staffing is adequate. Lantz said she has added 29 staff members to the intake facilities and 12 staff members at Garner Correctional Institution, where the correction agency has consolidated services for the most seriously mentally ill.

"We need a sense of balance. It's not just throwing bodies at a problem," Lantz said. "We called national experts, enhanced training and made mental health a focus of my administration since the day I came in as commissioner."

But union officials say training was better several years ago, compared with the one-hour training on suicide prevention they now get annually. And even when policies and procedures are followed, inmates are still committing suicide. The need for more staff is clear, they say.

"We need mental health professionals in the intake units around the clock." Meyers said. "If we're serious about this, we need to double the staff in the intake units."

The agency is considering adding mental health workers at some facilities, such as Manson Youth Institution, said Steven Helfand, director of mental health services with the University of Connecticut Correctional Managed Heath Care, which provides medical and mental health care to the correctional facilities.

"We haven't gotten a call that we haven't been there in an emergency," Helfand said, adding that he too is concerned about the suicide numbers. He's also frustrated, he said, because some inmates who commit suicide don't show symptoms of mental illness.

It's often a "brief, stress reaction to something," Helfand said. "It's frustrating to try and get your hands on that."

Mental health advocates say the suicide numbers are an indication of a growing reality - the prison system is absorbing more and more individuals with mental illness because there is an inadequate community mental health system. Since 2000, the number of moderate to seriously mentally ill offenders rose from 2,247 to 3,709, according to correction agency numbers.

Helfand, however, isn't sure there are more mentally ill offenders. It might also mean the agency is better at identifying mental health problems, he said.

But Sheila Amdur, public policy chair at the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, believes the correction commissioner has a public health problem in the number of suicides and the number of people with serious mental illness

"I find it hard to believe we won't have more suicides," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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