Suicides rise among Georgia inmates; Is solitary confinement to blame?

April 27, 2016 Jackson: The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is where the execution chamber is located. (credit: Ben Gray / / April 2016 file photo)

April 27, 2016 Jackson: The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is where the execution chamber is located. (credit: Ben Gray / / April 2016 file photo)

The number of Georgia inmates killing themselves has increased this year, surpassing the national average and leading some to question whether the rise is linked to the state’s increased use of solitary confinement in its prison system.

Fourteen state prisoners killed themselves through Dec. 4; one was on Death Row and at least two were being held in strict isolation, according to documents compiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. An additional prisoner being held in an isolation unit was found hanging in his cell, but since he died in the hospital days later — and not in the prison itself — corrections officials did not include his death in the total they provided to The AJC.

In 2016, by comparison, nine inmates committed suicide for the entire year.

In just one month – October – there were four suicides — Donnie Hulett on Death Row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison on Oct. 1, Milton Jones at Valdosta State Prison on Oct. 3 and Demitri Carter at Phillips State Prison and James Wheeler at Wilcox State Prison both on Oct. 29. Earlier this month, Caleb Mitchell hung himself in his isolation cell at Valdosta State Prison.

Mental Health Troubles

“There’s something going on,” said Lindsay Hayes of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives who is an expert in preventing suicides at jails, prisons and juvenile facilities.

Experts said many prisons are struggling to deal with stubborn mental health problems among their inmates, coupled with staff shortages.

“At a lot of prisons… they are decreasing the population of lower-level offenders,” Hayes said. “What remains are inmates serving longer terms. Many of those folks have greater mental health issues, which is one of the risk factors for suicide.”

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Some question whether staffing shortages means there are not enough officers to watch over troubled inmates. That means there can be a significant lapse in time before nearby prisoners can get the attention of officers. For taxpayers, that can mean relatives bringing lawsuits, as they did in the death of Nicholas Baldwin, who died last month after he attempted suicide and was left comatose, or Richard Tavera, who was found hanging in his isolation cell at Smith State Prison in December 2014.

The Department of Corrections didn’t respond to specific questions about the uptick in suicides.

Instead, a spokeswoman wrote in an email, “The GDC is committed to the safety and security of all offenders. Policies are in place that direct employees on the proper monitoring of offenders who are believed to be suicidal, and we address procedural lapses if they occur. Moreover, we work diligently to identify practices that will improve our ability to thwart suicide attempts.”

Nationally, inmate suicides started rising in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics,. In state prisons, the number of inmate suicides increased 30 percent from 2013 to 2014, the most recent national numbers available.

California and Arizona are among the state’s recording recent spikes in inmate suicides. Hawaii had three female inmates, including one being held in solitary confinement, commit suicide in four months earlier this year.

While Georgia is not the only state to see the number of suicides behind bars jump, the rate in this state is twice what it is nationwide. With just over 52,000 Georgia prisoners, 15 suicides translates into a rate of 28.5 per 100,000 prisoners.

The number of inmate suicides in Georgia this year is a small percentage of all inmate deaths so far this year – 15 out of 156, which includes one execution. But it is the highest is recent years. There were 11 inmate suicides in 2015. In 2014 there were five, in 2013 there were eight, in 2012 there were nine and in 2011 there were two.

And those numbers don’t include those inmates who kill themselves at county jails, where rates can run even higher.

Isolation to Blame?

Some are troubled by the number of suicides occurring among inmates assigned to solitary confinement, where some are held in 7-feet-by-13-feet cells with limited access to reading materials and human contact.

“I suspect the increase in suicides may be related to the GDC’s increased use of solitary confinement,” said Sarah Geraghty, managing partner at the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is representing inmates held in the highly restrictive special management unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

Geraghty said they may be confined for years on end and sometimes suffer from serious mental illness. Her group has filed a federal lawsuit against the state, challenging the prison system's use of solitary confinement. She says inmates kept in the unit are often "delusional and have lost touch with reality, conditions that are likely exacerbated by prolonged solitary confinement."

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Among those who state officials say committed suicide while in the Tier III program was Jamie Green — convicted of aggravated child molestation and child molestation in Bartow County in 2015. He had been in the isolation unit for two years before he was found hanging in his cell on Nov. 9 at 6:46 p.m.

The second was Daniel Tyner, serving 20 years in prison for a 2001 Cobb County armed robbery, aggravated assault and aggravated battery. He was found in his cell in August.

At least two other inmates were housed in restricted units — known as the tiers — when they were found dead or unresponsive this year. One was also in the most restrictive Tier III program and the other was assigned to Tier I, records show.

A department spokeswoman did not answer specific questions about which inmates were assigned to restricted housing units at the time of their deaths.

Suicide or Not?

Charles Lee Broady was on the lowest – least restrictive – level of the tier program when he was found hanging and unresponsive in his cell at Hays State Prison the evening of Nov. 15. He was pronounced dead a week later, at Redmond Regional Medical Center in Rome so the prison system is not treating the 41-year-old man’s death as a suicide. His family paid for an autopsy since one was not performed immediately after his death; results are pending.

“I think he was dead before he got to the hospital,” Vivian Spaulding, Broady’s mother said, noting that machines kept him breathing for a week.

His family doesn’t believe it was suicide. They believe something else happened to him.

Seventeen months into a three-year sentence for failing to register as a sex offender, Broady was transferred from Johnson State Prison in Wrightsville east of Macon to Hays in northeast Georgia just 10 days before he died, but they aren’t sure of the exact day he was assigned to restricted housing for talking in the chow line. Broady was scheduled to be in federal court in Macon on Dec. 18 to begin a trial on a lawsuit he brought against the Department of Corrections that officers at the prison near Jackson, where he was housed in 2014, had allowed gang members to attack him so violently that Broady had to be revived after his heart stopped.

“We’ve discovered blunt force trauma to the top of his head,” said his attorney, McNeill Stokes. “They killed him once and brought him back to life and they killed him again. It’s mysterious why he was transferred. Why did they transfer him there?”