Suicides and attempts on the rise in Texas prisons

Attempted suicides grew 30 percent from 2008 to 2014, and department reports show 2015 is on course for another increase

Brandi Grissom
The Dallas Morning News

LOVELADY, Texas — Bruce Harrington was 29 the first time he tried to kill himself. It was just before Christmas in 2008, his sixth year in prison. He slashed his left arm and fashioned a noose from the sheets in his cell.

Correctional officers at the Allred Unit found him before it was too late. He ended up in a medically induced coma and needed 12 staples to close the gashes in his arm.

About a month later, he survived a second attempt to hang himself. Then last January, Harrington, who had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child, made another noose. He tied one end of a bed sheet to the bars on the window of his cell and slipped the fabric around his neck. This time, officers at the Skyview Unit, a prison specially designed to provide psychiatric care, didn’t arrive quickly enough.

Harrington was among an increasing number of Texas inmates who have taken their own lives. From 2008 to 2014, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported a 40 percent increase in suicides, and data from 2015 indicate the system is on track to meet those numbers this year.

More inmates are also attempting to kill themselves, according to records that The Dallas Morning News obtained under state public records laws. Attempted suicides grew 30 percent from 2008 to 2014, and department reports show 2015 is on course for another increase.

What’s even more concerning, say advocates for change in Texas prisons, nearly one-third of the 134 suicides from January 2011 to September 2015 happened in administrative segregation, cells designated for solitary confinement. Yet solitary confinement accounts for less than 4 percent of the total prison population, according to the criminal justice department.

The increasing number of suicides and attempts also comes as the population in Texas prisons is falling. Since 2008, the number of inmates has dropped nearly 5 percent, according to criminal justice department data.

Advocates say the alarming figures show an urgent need to improve mental health care for inmates, better train officers to recognize signs of mental distress and implement independent oversight of the state prison system.

“We have a constitutional obligation to keep safe the people who we lock up. This isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law,” said Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is an expert in prison conditions.

Prison officials see the numbers differently. They say most inmates are stopped before their suicide attempts turn fatal. The trend, they say, reflects the reality that more prisoners suffer from mental illness, even though the overall inmate population is dropping.

“We’ve been able step up and do very good, solid work,” said Dr. Joseph Penn, director of mental health services for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides health services for about 80 percent of Texas inmates. “We have a very effective suicide prevention program.”

‘Deeply troubling’
Lawmakers have paid little attention to suicides in the state’s sprawling prison system, which grew from 22 in 2008 to 31 in 2014. As of September, there are 23 suicides this year.

“When these data show disturbing trends, we need to look closely at the way they are offering services and how they’re addressing these problems,” said Doug Smith, a policy analyst at the Texas Coalition for Criminal Justice, an Austin-based nonprofit.

In 2008, the first year that Harrington tried to kill himself, more than 750 inmates in Texas prisons attempted suicide. The number of attempted suicides grew to 980 last year.

“It does suggest to me that they are catching these people before the act is completed,” Deitch said. “But it’s so deeply troubling that there are so many people that are wanting to commit suicide.”

The state’s largest prisons, not surprisingly, saw the most suicides and attempts.

The Allred Unit, where Harrington attempted suicide in 2008, holds up to 3,722 inmates. That year, 58 men there attempted suicide.

Only one other prison saw more attempts that year. And no other Texas prison has seen as many suicides as Allred, where 17 men took their lives between January 2008 and September 2015.

Larger units not only house more inmates with longer sentences, but those facilities also have more cells dedicated to solitary confinement, Deitch said.

What makes suicides in solitary confinement particularly worrisome, she said, is that those facilities are designed for increased monitoring.

“The opportunity to commit suicide should be extremely limited,” she said.

While solitary is often used as a short-term solution to protect inmates from themselves or others or to punish them for bad behavior, some men have been isolated for decades.

Jacqueline Aguilar’s 26-year-old brother, Jose Aguilar, had spent nearly nine months in solitary confinement at the Ferguson Unit in southeast Texas when he hanged himself in February 2014. The Dallas Cowboys fan with a giant star tattoo on his neck was a member of the Tango Blast gang doing his second stint in prison, this time for weapons possession and evading arrest.

His death shocked Jacqueline, and her sister and mother, because they did not know Jose Aguilar was under mental distress. They dispute that his death was a suicide.

“Not a day goes by he doesn’t come into our minds,” Jacqueline Aguilar said.

Units specifically designed for inmates with psychiatric troubles saw the highest rates of suicides and suicide attempts. The Jester IV and Mountain View units, which house 550 and 645 inmates respectively, reported the highest rate of suicide attempts in the system. Mountain View is a women’s unit that includes death row inmates.

“Many female inmates have experienced real trauma in their lives,” Deitch said. “It often plays out in the form of suicide attempts.”

Both Jester IV and the Skyview unit, the psychiatric facility where Harrington died, saw seven suicides from 2008 to September 2015.

The two facilities had the highest suicide rate among all 109 prisons.

On a recent Friday morning, 95 corrections officer cadets in freshly pressed gray uniforms sat attentively in an old clubhouse building on the campus of the Eastham Unit near Trinity. At the front of the room, a video flickered on a large screen.

“I can’t take this anymore,” an actor in prison whites said in feigned desperation. “My parole was denied. I don’t think I’m ever getting out of here.”

A guard called for help.

“Never leave an offender who is in mental health distress alone,” the video narrator intoned over and over.

This year, the criminal justice department beefed up mental health training for officers. New cadets receive more than 33 hours of mental health training, and those already on the job get monthly sessions.

The department started its new training in September, after Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a bill that would have required it. Rep. Toni Rose, a Dallas Democrat who is a former jail employee, sponsored the measure and said the veto came when prison officials complained that it was an attempt to micromanage the agency.

Jason Clark, a department spokesman, said prison officials had already been working to improve training because many inmates arrive with mental health conditions. About 23,000 of the state’s 148,000 inmates receive outpatient mental health treatment. More than 1,400 receive inpatient care, and another 600 inmates are on the prison system’s specialty case load.

“One suicide is one too many,” Clark said. “And our staff works very hard to identify those offenders who might want to harm themselves.”

The training is designed to help officers recognize signs of a mental health crisis. They are taught to listen for cues from inmates who say things such as “no one cares” or “my family would be better off without me.” Officers are told to watch for indicators like inmates neglecting hygiene, refusing to eat or giving away belongings.

Penn, UTMB’s director of mental health services, said he didn’t believe suicides or suicide attempts were increasing in Texas prisons.

Sometimes officers report an attempted suicide when an inmate didn’t actually intend to kill themselves, he said. According to the criminal justice department, only 545 of the 6,333 attempted suicides reported between Jan. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2015, resulted in injury that required more than first aid.

Sometimes, Penn said, deaths initially ruled as suicides turn out to be something different.

“A coroner or pathologist may review a case that looks like suicide, but it could be murder or autoerotic asphyxiation,” he said. “This is an extremely complicated issue.”

Inmates often receive better mental health care behind bars than they would on the outside, Penn said.

Calls For Change
Doug Smith, the policy analyst at the criminal justice coalition, knows firsthand just how chaotic and desperate prison conditions can be. He spent more than five years there after he was convicted in a series of drug-fueled robberies. Since he was released in July 2014, Smith has been working to persuade lawmakers to improve conditions behind bars.

“We need to look closely at the way they’re offering services and how they’re addressing these problems,” he said.

One problem, he said, is staff shortages. In 2014, criminal justice officials reported more than 3,300 officer vacancies statewide. Even after lawmakers approved a raise, the agency struggled to retain staff in rural areas where oilfield-related work paid better.

Staff shortages can lead to myriad troubles, including less frequent inmate checks, fewer opportunities for inmates to leave their cells and more inexperienced officers on the job.

Smith and other advocates also want lawmakers to create independent oversight of the prison system to ensure safety and security, and investigate deaths.

To keep inmates from returning to prison because of unresolved mental health issues, Katharine Ligon, a policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the criminal justice department should provide not only medication but also therapies that help inmates in the long term.

Providing better treatment might not only reduce suicides, advocates say, but also improve public safety. Most inmates will complete their sentences and return to society. Ensuring their mental health could prevent future crimes.

The numbers also point to a serious need to minimize the use of solitary confinement in Texas prisons, especially for mentally ill inmates, advocates say.

“You’re only exacerbating some of those behaviors and some of those ideations of suicide,” Ligon said.

Copyright 2015 The Dallas Morning News

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