Suicides in Solitary Confinement in Arizona’s Prisons

Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic has begun a new series on the high rate of inmate deaths in Arizona’s state prison system–a phenomenon he refers to as the state’s “other death row”:

The other death row, the unofficial one, reaches into every prison in Arizona’s sprawling correctional system. No judge or jury condemned anyone in this group to death. They die as victims of prison violence, neglect and mistreatment.

Over the past two years, this death row has claimed the lives of at least 37 inmates, more than five times the number executed from the official death row. Among them are mentally ill prisoners locked in solitary confinement who committed suicide, inmates who overdosed on drugs smuggled into prison, those with untreated medical conditions and inmates murdered by other inmates.

Unlike state executions, these deaths rarely draw much notice. Each receives a terse announcement by the Department of Corrections and then is largely forgotten. But correctional officers and other staff who work with inmates say many of these deaths are needless and preventable.

The first piece in the series looks at inmate suicides–and finds that a strikingly disproportionate number of them take place in solitary confinement (which the state refers to simply as “maximum security”). Ortega points out that “Arizona puts more prisoners in solitary for longer stretches than most states  and the federal government,” and that corrections officials “routinely assign  non-violent prisoners to maximum security for disruptive behavior or for  violating minor rules.” In addition, as in most other states, a high number of inmates in solitary suffer from underlying mental illness, while other develop psychological problems as a result of the isolation.

Corrections data and internal reports obtained by The Arizona Republic show 470 attempts by inmates to harm themselves or commit suicide in the 11 months through the end of May. Self-harm includes inmates slashing their arms, swallowing razor blades, repeatedly banging their heads against the wall and similar incidents.

The result: Arizona’s official prison-suicide rate was 60 percent higher than the national average for the past two years, according to federal Bureau of Justice statistics.

A majority of the suicides — 11 — involved inmates locked in maximum security, where they are kept alone in windowless units with the lights on 24 hours a day and are allowed to leave their cells only a few times a week to shower or exercise by themselves.

While more than half of the suicides in Arizona prisons were by inmates in maximum-security solitary confinement, “max” inmates make up less than 9 percent of the total prison population of about 40,000.

Corrections officials defend the use of maximum security, saying it’s necessary to protect inmates and maintain order.

But academic and human-rights critics believe the suicide figures reveal a problematic use of solitary confinement. They attribute Arizona’s high suicide  rate to three overlapping practices: the use of solitary confinement to house mentally ill prisoners, inmates who are unruly rather than violent and inmates who may be targeted by other prisoners.

“High rates of suicide in solitary units is a widespread problem; that’s why many states no longer house mentally ill inmates in solitary,” said Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz who studies the  effects of incarceration. “The severity of the conditions in those units … most mentally healthy people who go in are adversely affected. People can become so despairing, so desperate that they take their own lives.”

The numbers of reported “unnatural” deaths may in fact be lower than the truth, since Arizona since, as Ortega reports in a related piece, the Arizona Department of Corrections often fails to report cause of death–and it carries out investigations into deaths on its own, without any outside intervention or oversight. Ortega quotes Carl ToersBijns, a retired deputy warden in Arizona (and frequent commenter on Solitary Watch):

“The cleanup starts the moment the incident is reported: eliminating flag words, eliminating individuals who may be relevant to the situation, cut back the witness list,” says ToersBijns…He emphasized that he doesn’t believe reports are falsified but are written selectively.

“By the time it’s finalized, the incident report is so clean and sterile you won’t know what happened because it’s already been filtered. The direction is given … was it deliberate, accidental, suicide, homicide? They try to fix and create a summary for that report that they can defend,” he says. “There’s a  couple of reports where the investigator had doubts and it was overwritten. A lot of drug overdoses are suicides; a lot of ‘natural deaths’ are people who have been suffering medical conditions but finally just expired. It’s not  reflected on those reports and never will be reflected in the news reports. Only  the ones who were there know what happened.”

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • Suziesuzie

    If they can’t face the time they shouldn’t do the crime. They commit suicide because they have the “poor me syndrome”. They need to learn that every action has a reaction before committing a crime, then they wouldn’t have to serve time to begin with.

    • Monica1972

      This is not about “if they can’t face the time they shouldn’t do the crime”. People who commit suicide in prison don’t do it because “they cannot face the time”, they do it because either they are mentally ill or because they become mentally ill while incarcerated (especially those in solitary confinement). You should educate yourself before giving opinions like that.

      The Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights (ratified December 15, 1791), which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment. Now, on the other hand, if you are one of those people who rejoice when a convicted criminal is tortured, humiliated, sodomized and verbally/ physically abused, you should talk to your congress representatives and demand from them to change the constitution of the United States of America into a Fascist Constitution were all citizens are stripped from their basic constitutional rights; like in 1930’s Germany. Someone who believes in torture as a form of punishment cannot be in her right mind. People who think like you are psychopaths and they should be lock up in a mental care facility.

  • Physicians who work in U.S. prison facilities face ethically difficult challenges arising from substandard working conditions, dual loyalties to patients and employers, and the tension between reasonable medical practices and the prison rules and culture. In recent years, physicians have increasingly confronted a new challenge: the prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness, a corrections practice that has become prevalent despite the psychological harm it can cause. There has been scant professional or academic attention to the unique ethics-related quandary of physicians and other healthcare professionals when prisons isolate inmates with mental illness. We hope to begin to fill this gap.

  • Director Ryan’s traditional deflections, distractions and denying cultural indifference to prison violence in Arizona prisons including a culture of punitive segregation methods for the mentally ill placed there for non-compliance with institutional rules and regulations.

    Bob Ortega’s prison stories has set off a tsunami of events that will require the Director of Arizona prison to explain why the agency is in such a turmoil and bad shape or maybe not if the Governor doesn’t care about how she spends her prison money and constituent’s family members dying at a record rate.
    Mr. Ryan, in his traditional mannerism continues to blame the former director for all the “problems with violence” inside his prison system on the former director, Dora Schriro who has been gone now since Gov. Brewer took over as interim governor and appointed Charles L. Ryan as the prison director.
    Bob’s reports are an accurate reflection of the truth as it is. He has examined the system’s root problems more so that the director himself who is still in denial there are problems. Mr. Ortega writes “Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan denies the rising murder and assault rates indicate there’s a problem with violence in the prison system. He attributes the increase in assaults, in part, to staffing cuts before he became director in 2009 and to a change in how the department defines them. Ryan says his predecessor recorded assaults only that resulted in injury. The department now records a range of incidents as assaults, from inmates flinging urine or feces at officers through their cell’s food slots, to attacks with crude weapons in which inmates or officers are badly injured.”“
    Ryan predicted assault rates will remain the same or decline slightly for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Having more corrections officers will improve safety for inmates and officers, he said.” Most likely, Ryan offers no explanation or a plan to counter these deaths, assaults and violence related issues any time soon. His response to expensive lawsuits continues his denial of fault and those staff guilty of deliberate indifference. His answer is a partial truth of the past as I was part of the administrative plan to re-allocate correctional staff in a hasty and ill-prepared plan that took officers away from “essential posts” and spread them out too thin around those facilities that had already established a record for the propensity of violence such as Yuma, Tucson, Lewis, Winslow Florence and Eyman. Using this new terminology of “pull posts” and “shutdown” post, he created a method called “shadow posting” where an officer is assigned to the post on paper but is actually doing something else, as a result of the extreme staff shortages on these shifts.
    It often left the yard officer by themselves with few as back up and did not provide any support for emergency transports during the shifts or suicide watches at another location leaving the shifts with barebones for an emergency response or at the very least delaying emergency responses by those officers left behind to fend for themselves and no additional resources.
    If Mr. Ortega were to pull all staff disciplinary records for the time period of October 2009 through the present he will see how many staff members have been disciplined for failure to perform because of limitations imposed by the central office administration and not the local wardens or unit managers. Mr. Ryan expects staff to be in two places at once and that’s how he operates.
    Secondly, he robbed Eyman and Florence as well as Lewis of key supervisory staff positions that were vacant and moved those positions to lower custody level units throughout the state leaving these higher custody units without proper shift coverage, guidance and decision-making personnel creating a void in leadership and good prison management.
    Although wardens expressed deep concerns with this plan, the choices and decisions were left up to people in central office that had no knowledge of each complex’s dynamics and therefore created deep interruptions in the daily operation abilities everywhere. In the meantime, more people will die, hospitalized, assaulted [this includes staff as well] and nothing will be done until Mr. Ryan gets “more boots on the ground” that he says he desperately needs to combat this problem is currently doing nothing about except to blame the former director for skewing her report mechanism to indicate a higher number when in fact, these incidents are real and are happening at a dreadful pace that makes Arizona prison unsafe for employees to work in and threatens public safety in the long run.
    I will be the first to admit you can fabricate reports to suit the outcome but in this case, these events already existed and whether or not they were reported accurately has nothing to do with prevention; intervention and reducing them to make prisons safer for all that work there and keep a secure and orderly environment for the prisoners.
    Today, Arizona prisons are more deadlier than other prisons because of an era under the current administration and as Mr. Ryan as director that has included poor policy making, poor staffing patterns, poor drug interdiction programs, unaddressed issues on violence and arbitrary enforcement of institutional rules and regulations on the mentally ill that has filled our maximum security units to capacity and showing signs of punitive segregation methods that created deaths and suicides under his term while embracing a culture of brutality, indifference and high tolerance to loss of life inside our prisons.
    Surely this is a most difficult working condition to put our correctional officers and employees under and expect successful results. The prison system is in need of new ideas and return back to basic that include sound acceptable evidence based practices instead of these ad hoc procedures implemented under the current regime that has resulted in failure after failure with severe consequences to staff and prisoners.
    My recommendation is three-fold – review this administration’s performance record and determine successful goals and failures of goals of their strategic plans and address failures (this includes support programming as well as medical and mental health services) – implement an external investigative unit e.g. State Police or DPS as investigative agents to review deaths and assaults – create an oversight committee for policy reviews and consider accreditation by American Corrections Association standard to eliminate the piece meal method used today to promulgate poor policies and adhere or follow sound correctional practices already recognized by the ACA and National Institute of Corrections.
    Read more:

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