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Suicide Crisis In Prisons Compounded By COVID-19, Lack Of Health Care

In the normal course of its work connecting prisoners across Wisconsin via email correspondence and newsletters, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of Milwaukee receives reports of the deaths of incarcerated people from their fellow prisoners. 

One recent report involved Kristopher Carlisle, who was incarcerated at the Columbia Correctional Institution.

According to the report, Carlisle was in poor health, suffering from diabetes and requiring a wheelchair, yet he was given only a walker and made to climb stairs multiple times a day for meals, medication, blood sugar checks, and other routine necessities.

On January 14, Carlisle crawled to the upper tier of his cell block and dove over the railing, falling two stories to his death.

Deaths like Carlisle’s are not uncommon within prisons across the United States, where administrators’ neglect of inmates’ general health care needs are compounded by their particular neglect of adequate suicide prevention. Worse yet, even the relatively robust network of suicide prevention resources available to the general public do little to assist prisoners.

The heightened rates of illness-related deaths among prisoners in the United States are matched by suicide rates.

When figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Centers for Disease Control are compared, it becomes clear prisoners suffer from significantly higher mortality rates from preventable diseases than the wider population, including cancer (30 percent to 22 percent), heart disease (30 percent to 23 percent), and liver disease (7 percent to 2 percent). 

Similarly, suicide rates are nearly four times higher among prisoners (7 percent) than the general public (2 percent), reaching a 16-year peak in 2016. In fact, some prisoners and their advocates believe that suicide rates may actually be even higher, however, they are obscured by administrators as accident-related deaths (1 percent).

Prisoners’ advocacy groups like the Southern Center for Human Rights also report that suicide rates have reached “unprecedented levels” due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially since administrators responded to the virus by keeping inmates in their cells for weeks at a time.

A sense of the new reality can be gleaned from the more recent reports received by IWOC Milwaukee, as the Wisconsin Department of Corrections confirms COVID infections in the thousands.

On the evening of October 24, a prisoner at Fox Lake Correctional Institution reported two ambulances were called to the “quarantine wings.” Whether the ambulances were responding to COVID cases, other emergency medical conditions, or instances of self-harm remained unclear.

“Suicides within prisons and correctional facilities are rapidly becoming the rule and not the exception,” argued Nicasio Cuevas Quiles III, an inmate at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution. “Statistics remain the highest unreported occurrence within prisons as the primary cause of death—second only to deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The [Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC)] seems very good at burying such statistics as accidents and other causes, trying very hard not to admit that there’s a problem,” reiterated  Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) Milwaukee organizer Robert Thibault.

Prisoners themselves connect inadequate health care with the preponderance of suicide.

Jeremiah Grube, an inmate at New Lisbon Correctional Institution, describes being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, in 2004. But because Grube is now unable to obtain his medication from the prison psychiatrist, he self-medicates with contraband opiates and methamphetamine. He has also seen where that may lead, pointing to the suicides of two fellow prisoners: Shawn McNutt on January 7, 2019, and Scot Weiss on October 5.

“The prison does not help or treat addiction at all,” said Grube. “People rather die than live in pain.”

The pain prisoners experience is compounded by the negligence with which it is received by administrators. Not only are inmates’ health care needs routinely ignored, as in the cases of both Carlisle and Grube, but even their suicide attempts are scorned.

Prisoners complain of staff making suicide jokes, threatening suicidal inmates with isolation, or simply ignoring suicide attempts.

“It is a common ‘mistake’ for guards to just walk away, saying they believed the inmate was being manipulative or misleading, or making threats out of anger and didn’t really mean it,” explained Aaron Pavin, a prisoner at Waupun Correctional Facility. “Then the inmate harms themself, and no one gets in trouble.”

Representatives from both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections tout their respective staffs’ mandatory suicide prevention training, which they say is delivered on a regular basis and includes instruction on mental illness.

According to John Beard, director of communications for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, state prisons averaged less than four suicides per year from 2010 to 2019. Beard claimed suicide prevention resources available to prisoners include clinical monitoring, crisis services, emergency call buttons in restrictive housing cells, and more. Yet all of the prisoners interviewed by Shadowproof described the services available as inadequate — or, in the words of one interviewee, “a joke.”

The belief that prisoners are malingering, or exaggerating the risk of suicide for their own benefit, is so persistent that the National Institute of Corrections shares resources like, “Is He Faking? Why You Should Treat All Suicide Threats as Real.”

Outside the prison walls, suicide prevention resources are relatively prevalent. The best-known of these is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of more than 180 crisis centers across the United States, which make up the leading suicide prevention effort in the country. Callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s hotline number are routed to local crisis centers for free mental health services and emotional support. But the lifeline provides no inmate-specific support.

“The lifeline provides support to anyone that contacts the lifeline,” explains Hannah Collins, a communications manager with National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Collins notes that, while she is not aware of a nationwide suicide prevention initiative specifically supporting prisoners, the individual crisis centers associated with National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may have their own, independent programs to that end. 

However, after contacting all four crisis centers based in Wisconsin, Shadowproof was unable to confirm that even one provided support specifically to local prisoners. On the contrary, a representative from one crisis center, Journey Mental Health Center in Madison, explained that the center provides support to those released from prison, but not those currently incarcerated.

Denied adequate health care or suicide prevention resources inside, and unable to access the more prevalent prevention resources available outside, prisoners are left to fend for themselves as circumstances become increasingly dire. 

As previously mentioned, the latest figures from the BJS indicate that suicide among prisoners reached a 16-year high in 2016—well before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic threatened to turn every sentence into a death sentence. The intersection of already rising suicide rates and the failure of administrators to adequately respond to the pandemic raises the spectre of even more deaths from self-harm, lending greater urgency to the calls for release from prisoners and their advocates.

Since mid-March, IWOC Milwaukee has argued for the release of all prisoners age 60 and over, as well as those expecting trial, and a halt to all arrests. “It only takes one misstep to turn an isolated, overpopulated institution into a death camp,” reads the appeal. But as with the suicide crisis, the question remains: is anyone listening?

Arvind Dilawar

Arvind Dilawar

Arvind Dilawar is a writer and editor. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.