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CORRECTIONS Ohio deals with record number of suicides among prison inmates



Published: Sat, July 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Prisons are increasing patrols and recreation time to deal with the problem.

LUCASVILLE, Ohio (AP) -- Troubled in love, prison inmate Garry Owens wrote a suicide note with a suicide-resistant pen, then asphyxiated himself with a bedsheet laced through his jail cell window.

He became the fifth state prisoner to kill himself this year, following a record 11 deaths in Ohio in 2004 and four in 2003. Connecticut and Iowa also have been dealing recently with spikes in inmate suicides.

Prison systems have responded by ordering more frequent guard patrols, replacing lace-up shoes with slippers, increasing the recreation time for prisoners in mental health units and removing from cells fixtures that inmates could use to hang themselves, such as wall-mounted lockers and smoke detector covers.

State officials in Connecticut also asked courts, prosecutors and police to tell prisons more about an incoming inmate's mental health.

"Some of the people that end up committing suicide show very little in terms of indicators," said prisons spokesman Brian Garnett. "So the more you can delve in what's in their head and their background, the better chance you have of protecting them."

In Connecticut, where jails and prisons are operated under the same system, there have been 13 suicides since April 2004, including four this year.

Four inmates committed suicide in two years in Iowa on a new unit for mentally ill prisoners, raising immediate concerns since the unit was meant to improve life for such inmates, said Dr. Ed O'Brien, Iowa Corrections Department medical director.

Staying alert

Among several changes, the prison system began checking suicidal inmates every five minutes instead of every 15 minutes, searching cells for material inmates could use to attempt suicide and training staff to better recognize suicidal behavior.

Consultants caution prison systems against ever letting down their guard against suicides.

"You're constantly putting out fires, dealing with one crisis after another, so after a period of time, when inmate suicides are no longer a daily concern or a daily crisis, then a system will turn to something else that happens to be on the front burner," said Lindsay Hayes, a prisons consultant Ohio hired last year.

Officials at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility say Owens, 31, was distraught over the end of a relationship with another inmate and his death was probably not preventable. One guard was fired and two more are being investigated for whether they kept a close enough eye on him.

In 2002, 166 inmates in state prisons committed suicide, or about 5 percent of the 3,101 inmate deaths that year, according to the most recent data available from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 6 percent of inmate deaths in 2001 were suicides.

On average, the suicide rate is 13 to 15 deaths per 100,000, compared to 11 deaths per 100,000 in the general community, Hayes said.

Prisoners most at risk for suicide include new inmates, those with mental health problems and those segregated as punishment -- in a smaller cell, with no recreation time or personal belongings.

In New York State, the country's fourth-largest prison system, two of the eight inmates who killed themselves last year were in segregation cells. In 2003, four of 14 inmates who committed suicide were in segregation cells.

Taking precautions

"Just like in the outside world, there are people whose suicides are long-term decisions, and there are people whose suicides are snap decisions," said James Flateau, spokesman for the New York Department of Correctional Services.

Any increase in prison suicides should be watched carefully because of what it implies about the medical care that mentally ill inmates may be receiving, said Kara Gotsch, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project.

Suicides "are not supposed to be happening and prison facilities should be taking extreme precautions to make sure suicides are prevented," Gotsch said.

At the prison consultant's recommendation, the state in April began screening segregated inmates with previously identified mental health problems, as well as inmates in protective custody, for suicidal tendencies. Inmates whose condition raises concerns are placed on suicide watch, which can include 24-hour-a-day monitoring.

The state initially declined to screen all segregated inmates, saying it doesn't have enough staff, then reversed course and said it is developing a plan to review them all. Ohio has about 1,500 inmates in segregation on any given day.

Owens' death

Owens was in a cell by himself for attacking his ex-lover as the two passed in lines on the way to lunch, said Ed Voorhies, warden at the maximum-security prison. Owens was serving a sentence of 15 years to life for a 1993 slaying.

The next evening, on June 4, sitting in cell 13 on the north wing of Lucasville's J2 block, Owens wrote a note addressed to his ex-boyfriend on a prisoner complaint form. He used a short, bendable pen designed to keep inmates from hurting themselves.

Voorhies said Owens then threaded a bedsheet through the bars of the small window in the door of his 6-by-8 1/2-foot institutional green cell, wrapped the sheet around his neck and dropped down, strangling himself.

His family suspects foul play. Diane Owens, 51, of Toledo, says her son told her he was threatened by guards and was afraid for his life. She disputes that he had a relationship with another man, and says he planned to marry his fianc & eacute;e when he got out of prison.

Voorhies says the evidence makes a suicide ruling clear: letters between the two men; the suicide note; and a recording of a phone conversation from the day before Owens died in which the inmate told his sister he was finally going to kill himself. The prison system will not release the note while an investigation continues.

Prison officials say it's probably impossible to prevent suicides, despite efforts to reduce their numbers. Many inmates are under stress, are mentally ill and suffer from alcohol abuse, all risk factors for suicide. Prisoners will continue to have access to items they can use to take their lives, such as bedsheets and bars to attach them to.

"It's not difficult for someone who's probably hell-bent on committing suicide to continue to do that," said Ohio prisons director Reginald Wilkinson.




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