‘This is not ordinary’: 5 inmate suicides in 3 months at Graterford

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Aerial view of Graterford State Prison in Southeastern Pennsylvania. (Chris Gardner/AP Photo)

Aerial view of Graterford State Prison in Southeastern Pennsylvania. (Chris Gardner/AP Photo)

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is under pressure to act after five inmates at Graterford Prison have died by suicide in the last three months.

“This is not ordinary, this many incidents and this short a time,” said Pennsylvania DOC Secretary John Wetzel.

The latest inmate, 58-year-old Roland Alston, died by suicide last week at the Montgomery County facility where Alston had been serving a life sentence since 1984.

State police are investigating Alston’s death, along with that of the four other inmates who’ve killed themselves since January. A spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on the investigations.

All five died by hanging, according to the Montgomery County coroner’s office.

The spate in suicides comes as the state has been working to improve conditions for the nearly 30 percent of inmates who suffer from mental illness over the last three years.

In 2014, investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice found that mentally ill inmates in Pennsylvania were twice as likely as other prisoners to be placed in solitary confinement. The following year, the DOC settled a lawsuit with the National Disability Rights Network and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and agreed to stop putting seriously mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement.

Prison staff are also being trained in mental health first aid and suicide prevention, and all inmates undergo mental health screenings when they arrive at prison – the time when they’re at the highest risk, Wetzel said.

The DOC is also training inmates to serve as certified peer specialists who can help respond to the mental health needs of their fellow inmates.

But there have been five deaths by suicide since January at Graterford, compared to an annual average of seven inmate suicides across all Pennsylvania state prisons.

Wetzel said he recognizes the need for improvement in a system where having policies on the books doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being followed.

For example, Wetzel noted gaps in communication between the county and the DOC during the intake process. He said prison staff should be receiving relevant information regarding the inmate’s mental health status from the county upon his arrival, so that correctional staff can assess the inmate’s mental health needs, or suicide risk.

“So we’ve had some shortcomings in that area,” he said.

Another dynamic may be contributing to the suicide increase, Wetzel said. This summer, Graterford’s roughly 2,500 inmates will be moved to the brand-new Phoenix Correctional Institute, a mile away. While many consider the new facility’s natural light and larger cells to be an improvement over the aged Graterford facility, Wetzel said he’s talked to some people who are very nervous about the change.

“We have some longer term individuals where anxiety is very high,” he said. “That’s certainly a piece of the puzzle.”

In response to the surge in suicides at Graterford, the DOC is also bringing in Lindsay Hayes, a national expert who has evaluated many prison suicide prevention programs. While Hayes said he could not comment on his current work for the DOC, he shared his check-list of best practices for suicide prevention, which recommends several of the steps Graterford and other state prisons have taken, such as initial mental health assessments upon incarceration. Hayes’ checklist also addresses suicide-watch protocols — making sure inmates on suicide watch are still integrated with the general population, and ensuring constant monitoring by guards.

“To their credit, they have made a lot of changes in how they’ve dealt with people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement,” said Su Min Yeh, a managing attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

But she said being placed on suicide watch can actually increase an inmate’s risk.

“You’re placed in a cell by yourself, you aren’t allowed to wear your clothes, you have some type of hard smock or hard blanket, but that’s sort of it,” said Yeh. “It might even be a dry cell where there’s no toilet, no sink. So the conditions of the suicide watch cell itself, I think, are so harsh that they could really make you feel much worse.”

In a 2013 review of California prisons, Hayes came to a similar conclusion that the suicide watch conditions were so unpleasant that inmates were less likely to disclose that they were having thoughts about ending their own lives.

The DOC won’t confirm whether any of the five Graterford inmates were on suicide watch when they died — or had been at any point.

While there could be patterns, Yeh warned that it is dangerous to look for a single explanation behind all five incidents.

“Obviously when you’re in prison, and you’re there for a long time, just like any other person’s life, things happen,” Yeh said, “and you may become more vulnerable to suicide.”

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