Families, Advocates Want Answers After Prisoner Suicide Spike

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This year in Massachusetts eight prison inmates have apparently taken their own lives. It's not a record the state is proud of — that suicide rate is almost four times the national average.

On June 2, Ramon DeJesus became the sixth Massachusetts prisoner to apparently commit suicide. Just over a month after his death, Antonia Chasse, DeJesus' sister, agreed to talk about her brother.

"My brother did a horrible thing (to put him in jail)," Chasse says, "but he was paying for his crime."

DeJesus' crime was murder. Eighteen years ago he stabbed Michelle Terhune, 27, the mother of his three children and another child from a previous relationship. The kids were home at the time. Chasse says there's no excuse for what her brother did, but she says he didn't know what he had done.

"He lost his mind, basically," Chasse says. "To avoid having the kids testify, I basically went with my brother and his attorney and he plead guilty. And he was given life in prison with parole. However when my brother realized what he had done, he could not forgive himself and he tried to take his life."

DeJesus' first suicide attempt more than 15 years ago was just one of many, his sister says. But, eventually, he settled into life in prison. The months blended into years, essentially without incident — until he was diagnosed with cancer. DeJesus underwent aggressive therapy and he went into remission, but he was medicated for constant pain. Then his sister received a call. DeJesus was unable to sleep with the pain and he told his sister that his medication had been taken away. He asked his sister for help getting his medicine back. But before she had a chance to contact officials or prisoner advocates, she received a call that her brother had been found hanging in his cell.

This year, state correctional officers have thwarted more than 40 suicide attempts.

"I cannot … put into words … how I felt," she says, choking back tears in her kitchen in western Massachusetts. She says her brother's apparent suicide was just the latest in a string of tragedies, beginning with the murder of Michelle Terhune. "On one hand I’m saying, 'I just spoke to my brother and he’s telling me how miserable he is, how much pain he’s in, how he needs help, and he called me and I failed him,' ... I feel so guilty that I let him down."

But Chasse says she has questions for the system, too. "I’m saying to myself, 'How could this happen, my brother is in jail?' And when you’re in jail, you have correctional officers that are there to watch you like a hawk. Because basically, for what I know, for what I see, I mean you’re in prison, you’re told when to go up, you’re told when to go to sleep, you’re told when to use the bathroom, you know what I mean? It’s like, everything is watched 24-7."

Veronica Madden, deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction, says she wants to assure the public that "no one is more disturbed than the commissioner and myself. When any inmate injures themselves or commits suicide, it’s a tragedy for the inmate, it’s a tragedy for the inmate’s family, it’s a tragedy for the other inmates living in that unit and the corrections officers and the superintendent that responds."

Madden and the department refused to confirm or deny any of the specifics in DeJesus' case, as an investigation is pending. But she did agree to speak about the state's inmate suicide problem.

So, following Chasse's question, there's a natural thought about prisoners when they commit suicide: They are under watch 24-7. Where are the guards? Where are the people watching them?

But, Madden says, correction officers do not have one-on-one observation of every inmate in the system on a 24-7 basis. That’s not a correctional practice. "Every inmate isn’t under constant scrutiny at all times. We have 11,500 inmates in the system at any given time." Maddens says the department tries to identify those who are at risk and intervene. They do assessments and checkups and, this year, correctional officers have thwarted more than 40 suicide attempts.

"I’m not saying forgive them and send them home. But you need to provide the proper service. And when you have eight people committing suicide in a jail system in seven months, there’s a problem."

Antonia Chasse, sister of state's sixth suicide victim

But Leslie Walker, of Prisoners' Legal Services, an advocacy group for inmates, says the suicides and the attempts are the result of a department that is arrogant and broken. She says the department is not ready to take care of the 11,000 people it has. "People are allowed, who are in precarious and fragile situations, to escape detection, but my frustration at this point is that I do not get the sense that the department or the administration is willing to say, 'This is a huge problem, how are we going to fix this, what can we do immediately?' "

The suicide problem in Massachusetts is complex. The deaths aren't in the same prison. There's no common type of prison. They are not all in segregation. And many of the inmates hadn't shown any signs of mental illness at all. So with no clear problem, Correction says there's really no clear-cut solution. But Madden says despite what Walker and other critics say, the department is trying on many fronts.

"We have increased our mental health services," she says, "we have opened specialized units for persons with mental illness, we have increased training opportunities, we’ve done physical plant rehabilitations for suicide-resistant cells, we have called in partners and experts to collaborate. It is on the agenda, it is a topic that we frequently discuss."

Correction has also hired the same national expert, Lindsay Hayes, it did in 2006 — the last time there was a spike in suicides. The department says it's implementing Hayes' recommendations where it can. For example, according to Hayes, if an inmate is known to be suicidal, then it's probably better not to strip them of every single personal belonging and stick them in total isolation until they tell officials they aren't feeling suicidal anymore. Another: if there's a hook or pipe in a cell, make sure it can't hold a person's weight. But advocate Walker says that kind of approach is not enough.

"Having Mr. Hayes back will make a better box," she says. "He knows how to make a better prison cell. But he does not contain the expertise the department needs now."

Walker says fixing the suicide problem means fixing the prisons from top to bottom and letting in media and the public in to see what's going on. She also wants there to be a commission to oversee the jails. Correction is showing no signs of taking up those ideas so far.

Meanwhile, Chasse says nothing will bring back her brother or his victim. She says she's worried that prison officials just don't get it.

"Don’t take me wrong, these people have committed crimes, they gotta pay for their crimes; I’m not saying forgive them and pat them on the back and send them home," she says. "But you need to provide the proper service. And when you have eight people committing suicide in a jail system in seven months, there’s a problem. Again, we have to remember, we’re dealing with human beings, and as bad as they might be, these people with mental help problems need help."

This program aired on August 3, 2010.


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