Kini Seawright at the Herberger's Stage Door
February 20, 2012
Even I didn't know about some of the reported circumstances surrounding these prisoner deaths below. Thanks, Bob Ortega and the other folks who care about human rights and human life at the AZ Republic, from myself and the many families devastated by these (and far too many more) AZ prison suicides under the administrations of Chuck Ryan and Jan Brewer. I think we're stuck with Brewer for the rest of her term, but it's way past time for Ryan to go.
June 2, 2012
Nearly every day, an inmate in an Arizona prison attempts suicide. In the past two years, 19 succeeded.Among those who died:
Otto Munster hanged himself with his shoelaces while in solitary confinement.
Tony Lester slashed his throat, arms and groin with a razor blade he wasn't supposed to have because he was categorized as mentally ill. He bled to death.
Rosario Rodriguez-Bojorquez killed himself while in solitary after being denied a request to be moved to protect him from other inmates.
Duron Cunningham killed himself six days after Rodriguez-Bojorquez, while in solitary in the same unit, also after being denied a move into protective segregation. He had been raped and assaulted, according to prison reports.
Karot Phothong hanged himself with a bedsheet while in solitary confinement, or "maximum security," the term used by the Arizona Department of Corrections.
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."
Solitary as discipline
Arizona puts more prisoners in solitary for longer stretches than most states and the federal government. While many Arizona inmates are in maximum security because they are violent and present a threat to staff and other prisoners, 35 percent of the inmates currently in max were imprisoned for non-violent crimes, according to the state's own data. Corrections officials routinely assign non-violent prisoners to maximum security for disruptive behavior or for violating minor rules.
Carl ToersBijns, a retired deputy warden who served at Eyman state prison, among other places, said that maximum-custody units are filled with people put there because of repetitive misconduct. He said they should be placed in treatment programs instead.
"If a deputy warden finds you to be problematic, they can manufacture a packet to place you in max custody for 12 months. It's a year's review, and central office rarely goes against a warden's recommendations," he said.
That's how many mentally ill inmates wind up in maximum security -- because they can't control their behavior, says Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School professor who has spent decades studying the effects of solitary confinement.
In Arizona, inmates sent to solitary for breaking rules have to show they can behave before they are allowed to get out. But this approach "is based on a false premise," says Grassian. "It's based on the notion that inmates in solitary can rationally calculate risks and benefits, that if you give them enough negative consequences they'll change their behavior in a positive direction. But the people who end up in solitary are precisely the least likely to be able to respond rationally."
Solitary "is a shortsighted, expedient approach to prisoner management," he said. "It's expensive; it's risky; and I don't believe there's a sufficient correctional justification for its use."
Many longtime correctional officials defend maximum custody and solitary as necessary to control dangerous or troublesome inmates. Ben Shaw, director of mental-health programs for Arizona's Department of Corrections, says that being in maximum custody doesn't in and of itself cause any decline in mental functioning.
Grassian disagrees. "Many people who didn't have a mental illness become psychotically ill as a result of being incarcerated in solitary confinement," says Grassian. And those who are already mentally ill become worse, he notes.
Haney said that inmates in solitary confinement can become more violent and less able to control themselves -- and more of a danger to the public when they're released.
An inmate's mental condition is usually established by the time he or she enters prison. Otto Munster, for example, was arrested for armed robbery in March 2011, and underwent three psychiatric evaluations before being deemed competent to enter a plea. At his sentencing, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Cari Harrison recommended that Corrections provide Munster with substance-abuse and mental-health treatment. Corrections officials declined to say whether Munster received treatment. He killed himself five months into a five-year prison sentence.
Many states, from California to Mississippi, no longer place mentally ill inmates in solitary because of what the clinical data shows about its impact and often because they stopped the practice to settle lawsuits.
In a suit filed in federal court March 6, a coalition of human-rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, accuses Arizona's Department of Corrections of "gratuitous cruelty" in its use of solitary confinement. The suit seeks to restrict the use of solitary, particularly for minors and the mentally ill.
Effects of solitary
Those who have been held in isolation say it's hard for those who haven't to understand its impact.
Sarah Shourd, who spent 14 months in isolation in Iran's notorious Evin prison after being seized at the Iraqi Kurdish border with two other American hikers in 2009, said in recent interviews that in her small cell she suffered from insomnia and panic attacks and would lose control, screaming and beating the walls, unaware of what she was doing. Two years later, she still struggles with the psychological aftermath, finding crowds or loud noises unbearable. She has become an adamant foe of the use of solitary confinement, which she calls degrading and inhumane.
"When I got out I was shocked to find that the U.S. had more people in solitary confinement than any other country," she told writer James Ridgeway. "And in this country it is used routinely as an administrative practice, not as a very last resort, which is how it should be used."
Two-thirds of Arizona prisoners in solitary are held at Eyman state prison, in Florence. Former inmate Ruben Bermudez has done two stints in solitary there -- the first when he was 16. He recalls vividly his time in a windowless cell with nothing except a box of letters from his family.
"There was s--t splattered all over my cell and it never got cleaned up," he said. "You don't ever see the outside. You don't see anything, night after night and day after day. ... I was hiding under my bed, crying, flipped out, having nightmares. You just stare at things. I would pace back and forth, back and forth. ... I was having panic attacks. You have nothing. You get one book a month. You go nuts just staring at the walls."
In many cases, disciplinary charges will land an inmate in solitary. Most often, such charges are for refusing an order to share a cell with a particular inmate, says prisoner-rights advocate Margaret Plews, who has spent years tracking Arizona inmate deaths. She said inmates who fear for their lives in the general inmate population will often deliberately rack up disciplinary charges.
That fear can stem from gang affiliations, or the lack of an affiliation and the protection it can provide. When an inmate asks for "protective segregation," the standard procedure is to put that person in a solitary detention unit while the request is considered.
That's where Munster was when he killed himself. It's also where inmates Rodriguez-Bojorquez and Cunningham were when they committed suicide within days of each other in September 2010 at the Florence state prison.
According to another inmate, Rodriguez-Bojorquez had recently been denied protective segregation when he killed himself. Cunningham was seeking protective segregation after being assaulted and raped, according to his mother.
Corrections officials didn't respond by deadline to queries about the case.
Inmates who attempt to harm themselves, or even talk about it, are placed in isolation in watch cells where they are supposed to be checked on at least every 30 minutes, in some cases every 10 minutes, or even kept under continuous observation.
ToersBijns, the retired deputy warden, said that many officers "go above and beyond in dealing with very challenging conditions, and save lives; but you also have officers who go off and spend time in the office when they're supposed to be on suicide watch."
Some inmates need to be protected from themselves; some need to be protected from others. Jesse Cabonias, 49, hanged himself last July in a porter's closet at the Lewis state prison. Due to a miscount by officers, no one noticed him missing for seven hours. Other inmates told a Corrections investigator that Cabonias had been repeatedly raped by a cellmate. The autopsy showed methamphetamine in his system at the time he died. He had previously requested and been denied protective segregation.
Forrest Day, 19, was serving a 3.5-year sentence for child abuse, after her infant son drowned when she left him in a tub unattended when she was 16.
She used her shoelaces to hang herself at Perryville state prison on Jan. 27. Her father, James Day, reported to the Maricopa County medical examiner that shortly before she died, Forrest Day told him officers were forcing her to have sex with them. The medical examiner's spokesman, Mike Molzhon, said the examiner took genital swabs and turned them over to a Corrections Department investigator for testing but the department did not test the swabs.
Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said, "Nothing in the investigation or autopsy showed that a sexual assault occurred."
He declined to say whether investigators contacted James Day or interviewed other inmates or officers about the allegations. James Day couldn't be reached for comment.
More units planned
Arizona has long been more aggressive than most states in its use of solitary confinement.
In 1987, Arizona built the first prison designed from scratch for permanent lockdown, one that would become the prototype for "supermax" solitary-confinement prisons around the country: the SMU 1 ("special management unit") at Eyman state prison. It has no windows, no recreation yard, no common rooms. The perforated steel fronts and doors of the cells allow prisoners to be handcuffed while locked in their cells; each small "pod" of cells is monitored centrally, with fewer correctional officers than older prisons. Inmates exercise alone in a windowless concrete pen.
Haver, Nunn and Colamer, the Phoenix architectural firm that designed the prison, trumpeted it in the industry magazine Corrections Today as a living example "of how tomorrow's maximum-security prisons will be designed." The firm won contracts to build California's similar Pelican Bay prison and many others. A supermax building boom followed. By 1999, similar prisons sprang up in 30 states; by 2005, in 40 states. Arizona soon expanded SMU 1 and built a second SMU, now called the Browning Unit, at Eyman.
Despite the ACLU lawsuit in March, and an April report by Amnesty International charging that Arizona's use of solitary violates international human-rights treaties, Corrections officials have rejected any calls to change how they classify and assign inmates.
Last fall, the Department of Corrections said it gave six hours of training in how to recognize and prevent suicides to 8,806 staff members. The training advised staff to take all suicide threats seriously and not to "dare the inmate to try it." Staff were also given guidance on what to do in instances of hanging or cutting, the most common methods inmates use to harm themselves.
The training followed a lawsuit filed by the family of inmate Tony Lester, a mentally ill inmate housed in a two-man cell at the Tucson state prison who bled to death in July 2010 while correctional officers stood outside his cell for more than 23 minutes. Orlando Pope, one of those officers, said he'd never been trained in how to apply pressure to a wound.
The Lester family is seeking $3 million.
On May 17, the U.S. Department of Justice announced new national standards that call for restricting the use of solitary- and maximum-custody units for inmates who ask for protective custody. Ryan said his department will respond to those standards within the required 14 months.
Ryan also says "boots on the ground" help prevent suicides and said Corrections will add 103 correctional-officer positions next fiscal year, on top of 306 positions restored this year and last after deep cuts in the mid-2000s. He sees evidence of success in the decline in successful suicides so far this fiscal year -- to six, from 13 last year.
The actual number of suicides both years is almost certainly higher. The state's figures don't include 10 deaths that the department lists as still under investigation, or eight other deaths in which inmates died at their own hands but that Corrections has deemed "accidental."
Meanwhile, the number of self-harm and suicide attempts continues to rise, from 449 last fiscal year to 470 in the first 11 months of this fiscal year.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com.