On the final day of 2018, North Carolina prisons hit a grim mark as at least the ninth inmate died by suicide.
Robert Spicer was found dead in his cell at Nash Correctional Institution northeast of Raleigh at around 12:30 a.m. Monday, according to an N.C. Department of Public Safety release. The 48-year-old was serving a 77-year sentence for first-degree sexual offenses with a child.
According to news reports, six inmates died by suicide in 2017, seven killed themselves in 2016 and three took their own lives in 2015.
In the 25 years ending in 2015, the state reported a total of 68 suicides - or about 2.7 per year.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state’s prison system, refused to discuss the circumstances around Spicer’s death. And because staff members were off for the New Year’s holiday, he said he could not confirm if the 2018 suicide mark was the highest in state history or say what the state is currently doing to reduce suicides.
After a spate of inmate deaths in 2016, the state released a plan to curb prison suicides.
Prison leaders said then that they would train staff to recognize suicidal tendencies, conduct mock drills to teach staff how to respond to suicide attempts, designate protective rooms for suicidal inmates and better monitor inmates who are released from suicide watch.
“I’d like to see them follow their own policy,” said Elizabeth Forbes of the criminal justice reform group NC-CURE. “The policies that N.C. DPS has in place are not bad policies. But they’re not following them.”
In an interview Monday, Forbes said she’s been worried that more inmates would take their own lives.
State prison leaders tightened security following the deaths of five correctional officers in 2017. The measures sometimes limited inmates’ freedom, holding them in cells for up to 23 hours a day. That can drive an inmate with mental health issues to suicide, Forbes said.
“I don’t blame DPS for tightening security, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do it,” she said.
Forbes also said the state needs more - and better trained - correctional officers.
Through October - the most recent month of data available to the Observer - Nash Correctional averaged a staff vacancy rate of about 9 percent.
Maury Correctional Institution, which had three suicides in 2018, had an average monthly vacancy rate of 14 percent, data show.
Neither of those numbers count positions that were empty because of leaves of absence.
“(A shortage of staff) affects everything,” Forbes said. “It affects their time in the yard. It affects their programs. It affects chow.”
That, too, can weigh on the mental health of inmates, Forbes said.
At least eight other inmates died this year by suicide, according to DPS news releases. They are:
▪ Benhamin Williford, who died Dec. 18 at Maury Correctional. Williford was serving a 35-year sentence for arson and second-degree murder.
▪ Brandon Lineberger, who died Nov. 2 at Pasquotank Correctional. Lineberger was incarcerated for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, inflicting serious injury. He was scheduled to be released in 2033.
▪ David Atkins, who died Oct. 1 at Piedmont Correctional. Atkins was serving nearly two years for violating the terms of his release. His original charge was obtaining property by false pretenses.
▪ Larry Bowman, who died Aug. 30 at Maury Correctional. Bowman was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
▪ Matthew Howlett, who died Aug. 9 at Bertie Correctional. Howlett was serving time for felony breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon and drug possession.
▪ John Dalton, who died April 19 at Central Prison. Dalton was serving nearly seven years as a habitual felon.
▪ Jermaine Johnson, who died April 7 at Marion Correctional. Johnson was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
▪ Michael Grant, who died Feb. 5 at Maury Correctional. Grant was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.