Five years ago, the Boston Globe did a comprehensive exposé on what it called the ”Prison Suicide Crisis” in Massachusetts. The Globe found that prisoners in the state were taking their own lives at a rate three times the national average–and that “most of the deaths came after careless errors and deadly decisions by Department of Correction officials and health staff, at times when inmates were obviously at risk.” The state hired a “suicide prevention specialist” but apparently ignored most of the recommendation in the specialist’s report, including warnings against placing suicidal inmates in solitary confinement.
Unsurprisingly, as the Boston Globe reported in 2010, the “epidemic” of prison suicides continued. And earlier this month, two suicides took place in a single weekend, both of them in isolation cells–suggesting that little has changed in Massachusetts’ prisons.
On March 10, the Globe reported that a prisoner awaiting trial on murder charges had been found dead in his cell: “Eric J. Snow, 30, of Bridgewater, was found lying in his bed at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility with a plastic bag over his head, said … a spokeswoman for [the] Plymouth County District Attorney.” Snow’s former attorney, Gerald Fitzgerald, called the conditions of his client’s pre-trial detention “a shameful disgrace.” He told the Globe: “We live in a society that treats animals in a zoo more decently and more humanely than they treat men in prison awaiting trial… They broke him…Why, against their own policies, is this man in isolation for four years?”
Previous to his death,the Globe later reported, ”Snow pleaded with Plymouth jail offices to free him from more than four years “in the hole.” On February 27, Snow had written to the jail’s security director: “All I want is to please be able to live in regular population where I’m not confined to a cell for five days a week losing my mind…I have been in the hole for so long it is eating me alive.”
On the same weekend that Snow killed himself, another inmate committed suicide in solitary in Massachusetts, this time at the state prison in Shirley. As the Globe reported it: ”A correctional officer at the medium-security prison at MCI-Shirley found Scott Rose hanging in a single cell [from] a bed sheet at about 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, according to Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction.” Wiffin told the paper that “correctional officers check the inmates in the unit every 30 minutes. Also, they are regularly screened for mental health issues and are allowed to have family visitors, among other privileges, she said.”
Wiffin had earlier told the Globe that in fact, Massachusetts state prisons do not use solitary confinement, although it does place prisoners in 23-hour-a-day isolation, often for long periods of time. “‘It’s not solitary confinement,’” she said, because, ”Under the regulations, the inmates are allowed one hour of exercise per day outside their cells, unless security or safety considerations dictate otherwise.’’
Following the report of Rose’s suicide, Timothy Muise, whom we have written about before and who now is incarcerated at Shirley, sent a Letter to the Editor of the Globe saying Wiffin wasn’t telling the whole story. He accused the Massachusetts Department of Corrections of providing a “sanitized” version of how Rose had died. An excerpt from his letter–which was not published in the paper–follows:
Scott Rose committed suicide because investigative officers [names delete], ordered the psychiatrist here,…to take Scott off his psychiatric medication…due to their concerns that he may be misusing it. It is illegal for security staff to do this, but it is quite commonplace, and the psychiatric staff are extremely reluctant to stand up to security staff as they will become the target of their ire. These are facts. Sad, but the “truth.”
Further, you reported that Ms. Wiffin told you that guards make rounds in the “Special Management Unit” (The Hole) every thirty (30) minutes. Trust me when I tell you, as I have been in quite a few “holes”, that the guards do not do this. They may keep records that they do, but they don’t, and what is even more troubling is that after the suicide crisis of 2010 the DOC agreed that they would do rounds every fifteen (15) minutes in the “hole. Did Ms. Wiffin forget this?
In 2010 I met with Undersecretary for Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom and then Commissioner Harold Clarke about the suicide crisis. I, along with some other prisoners, detailed for them the “truths” about this debacle, but nonetheless we continue to see men choose death over another day behind bars in the draconian Massachusetts prison system. The cost is high.
I would ask that you try to tell the real story here, not just for the sake of prisoner lives, but for the safety of the public.