Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic has begun a new series on the high rate of inmate deaths in Arizona’s state prison system–a phenomenon he refers to as the state’s “other death row”:
The other death row, the unofficial one, reaches into every prison in Arizona’s sprawling correctional system. No judge or jury condemned anyone in this group to death. They die as victims of prison violence, neglect and mistreatment.
Over the past two years, this death row has claimed the lives of at least 37 inmates, more than five times the number executed from the official death row. Among them are mentally ill prisoners locked in solitary confinement who committed suicide, inmates who overdosed on drugs smuggled into prison, those with untreated medical conditions and inmates murdered by other inmates.
Unlike state executions, these deaths rarely draw much notice. Each receives a terse announcement by the Department of Corrections and then is largely forgotten. But correctional officers and other staff who work with inmates say many of these deaths are needless and preventable.
The first piece in the series looks at inmate suicides–and finds that a strikingly disproportionate number of them take place in solitary confinement (which the state refers to simply as “maximum security”). Ortega points out that “Arizona puts more prisoners in solitary for longer stretches than most states and the federal government,” and that corrections officials “routinely assign non-violent prisoners to maximum security for disruptive behavior or for violating minor rules.” In addition, as in most other states, a high number of inmates in solitary suffer from underlying mental illness, while other develop psychological problems as a result of the isolation.
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.”
The numbers of reported “unnatural” deaths may in fact be lower than the truth, since Arizona since, as Ortega reports in a related piece, the Arizona Department of Corrections often fails to report cause of death–and it carries out investigations into deaths on its own, without any outside intervention or oversight. Ortega quotes Carl ToersBijns, a retired deputy warden in Arizona (and frequent commenter on Solitary Watch):
“The cleanup starts the moment the incident is reported: eliminating flag words, eliminating individuals who may be relevant to the situation, cut back the witness list,” says ToersBijns…He emphasized that he doesn’t believe reports are falsified but are written selectively.
“By the time it’s finalized, the incident report is so clean and sterile you won’t know what happened because it’s already been filtered. The direction is given … was it deliberate, accidental, suicide, homicide? They try to fix and create a summary for that report that they can defend,” he says. “There’s a couple of reports where the investigator had doubts and it was overwritten. A lot of drug overdoses are suicides; a lot of ‘natural deaths’ are people who have been suffering medical conditions but finally just expired. It’s not reflected on those reports and never will be reflected in the news reports. Only the ones who were there know what happened.”