Opinion: State must act to reduce prison suicides

050518 Reidsville Ga: Sidney Dorsey Former Dekalb County Sheriff now in prison for the murder of Derwin Brown is speaking about missing and murdered children cases being reopened from the behind the walls of Georgia State Prison at Reidsville.  May 18, 2005 (Renee' Hannans Henry/Staff).

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

050518 Reidsville Ga: Sidney Dorsey Former Dekalb County Sheriff now in prison for the murder of Derwin Brown is speaking about missing and murdered children cases being reopened from the behind the walls of Georgia State Prison at Reidsville. May 18, 2005 (Renee' Hannans Henry/Staff).

Since time immemorial, law enforcement workers have routinely dealt with people sometimes referred to as “obs” cases – short for “observation.”

That’s shorthand for people who’ve wound up in the criminal justice system and are showing signs of depression or other mental illness – or been diagnosed as suffering from same.

It doesn’t take a degree in criminology – just plain, simple common sense and humanity -- to know that such prisoners require more time and care to keep them and those around them safe from preventable harm.

Consistent, competent observation in other words.

The systems that serve a decent society should, at minimum, be capable of that much.

Yet that standard seems far from being the case behind the razor-wire fences of Georgia’s state prisons.

Investigative reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that far too many inmates housed within the Georgia Department of Corrections have committed suicide in recent years. Since 2018, the number of prison suicides has remained stunningly high, this even after the state’s rate was already above the national average.

These numbers are unacceptable for a state like ours that spends a lot of time and effort telling the world what a great place we are to live, work and do business. The least among us require more.

Georgia can do far better. It must do better.

The case of the late Andrew Campbell tells us why.

Campbell, from Bremen, was a former Marine who served his state and nation in Afghanistan, where his combat logistics unit worked at risk of IEDs.

Like many combat-serving military personnel, he returned from overseas deployment with more than his share of struggles. He had post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and an addiction to painkillers and other drugs.

The list of the 28-year-old Campbell’s maladies should have been known to the corrections department. And a competent, reasonably humane system would have acted on that knowledge in how they dealt with the troubled veteran.

What happened instead was that Campbell was allowed to, in the words of a news story, “languish in a single-man cell” inside a segregation unit at Rutledge State Prison.

Why does “languish” apply here? Because, as the report found, “the lone officer on duty didn’t check every 15 minutes as required. That officer was later fired for not making the appointed rounds and creating paperwork to make it look as if he had.”

The result? The former servicemen two years ago last April was able to attach a bedsheet to latticework on his cell window and hang himself.

His mother, Rita Underwood, summed up what we should all now see. “I think they failed him greatly,” she said. “This wouldn’t have happened if they were doing their jobs.”

She is right.

The system failed, as did the state that oversees it. Georgia fell far short of the obligation laid out by President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address that a nation grateful for servicepeople’s sacrifice would “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

Sadly, Campbell’s case was not the only one where, by all appearances, neglect helped empower suicide by prison inmates.

This newspaper identified 125 prisoners since the start of 2017 who have killed themselves in facilities managed by the Georgia Department of Corrections. Some 89 of those suicides have happened since 2018.

A news story last Sunday reported that, “Behind the numbers are stories of mentally ill inmates who were neglected, isolated and, in some instances, treated with downright cruelty.”

Among their ranks was Christopher Heath, who was found dead at Smith State Prison after being locked in a “tiny, windowless shower stall” in the segregation unit. His brother alleges he had been kept there for days.

Allowing conditions that make it too easy for troubled prisoners to kill themselves is not only unnecessary and cruel. It is also costly for Georgia’s taxpayers. That’s worth noting in a state that prides itself on running a lean, cost-conscious state government.

Since November 2020, Georgia has paid nearly $4.3 million to settle four lawsuits that were filed after prison suicides, records obtained by the AJC show. Last Sunday’s story noted that “The settlements suggest that the state has acknowledged, at least tacitly, its failures in preventing those deaths.”

And, given the number of prison suicides, the state’s cost and liability may continue to grow. At least two other similar lawsuits are pending. Other claims have been made by attorneys who have notified the state of their intention to sue.

Georgia could have hired and trained well a goodly number of prison staff for just the cost of the legal settlements so far.

And some lives just might have been saved.

For its part, the department of corrections says that the number of inmates with mental health diagnoses has increased 22%, even as the overall prison population has declined during the pandemic. A spokeswoman for the system says it has been expanding mental health services in prisons and, since 2019, has mandated mental health training for all employees.

Whatever they are doing, it’s not nearly enough.

And with a renewed emphasis now on improving mental health resources across the state, lawmakers should likewise work to quickly improve and expand such services inside prison fences.

Decency, humanity and a respect for those suffering from mental illness demands at least that much.

The Editorial Board.