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Spate of inmate suicides hits North Carolina prisons

An inmate mops the floor of a restricted housing unit at Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton. Tony J. Davis, a prisoner in restricted housing at Lanesboro, committed suicide in April. Prisoner advocates note that inmates in segregated housing are supposed to be closely monitored by staff - and question why inmates have been able to kill themselves in such units. Davis was one of four N.C. inmates who killed themselves in a 16-day stretch this year.
An inmate mops the floor of a restricted housing unit at Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton. Tony J. Davis, a prisoner in restricted housing at Lanesboro, committed suicide in April. Prisoner advocates note that inmates in segregated housing are supposed to be closely monitored by staff - and question why inmates have been able to kill themselves in such units. Davis was one of four N.C. inmates who killed themselves in a 16-day stretch this year. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A spate of North Carolina prison suicides – some in cells that were supposed to be under frequent supervision – have spurred investigations and heightened the concerns of inmate advocates.

During a recent 17-day period – April 19 to May 5 – four state prison inmates reportedly committed suicide. A fifth killed himself in January, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

The five suicides so far this year exceed the number for all of 2015, when three suicides were reported.

In some past cases, the Observer found, correctional officers have been fired for skipping required checks on inmates. It’s not yet clear whether checks were skipped in the hours before any of these five inmates died.

Among this year’s victims was Scott Sica, who was found dead in his cell at Scotland Correctional Institution on the morning of April 19. Sica, 40, was serving a life sentence for the 1996 murder of a Jonesville police sergeant.

A fellow inmate told the Observer that Sica hanged himself. He’s one of two North Carolina suicide victims this year who had been housed in a prison segregation unit, where inmates are supposed to be checked regularly by correctional officers.

There is no excuse. Where are the cameras?

Inmate advocate Elizabeth Forbes, questioning why inmates are able to commit suicide in segregated housing units that are supposed to be closely monitored.

It’s unclear whether more regular checks at the prison in Laurinburg would have prevented Sica from killing himself. But three days after his death, an email obtained by the Observer shows, officers at Scotland were given a new order about how to check on inmates:

“All relieving shifts will assist the ongoing shift with completing a final round … This final round is to ensure that there is a live breathing body in each cell on controlled and restricted housing units.”

State prison officials say they generally do a good job of preventing suicides.

N.C. Prisons Commissioner David Guice said in a statement Tuesday that “the number of suicide deaths is greatly outnumbered by successful interventions” to prevent suicides among inmates.

While any case of suicide is unfortunate, the number of suicide deaths is greatly outnumbered by successful interventions

N.C. Prisons Commissioner David Guice

In a number of recent cases, Guice said, inmates who were threatening to hurt themselves were interrupted by officers and put on constant observation until they could be assessed by mental health professionals.

Historically, prison leaders say, the suicide rate among North Carolina inmates has been lower than that for state prison populations nationally – and lower than the rate for the U.S. population as a whole.

But critics question whether state prison officials are doing enough to treat and monitor inmates who might be at risk of committing suicide.

2.7 Average number of North Carolina state prison inmates who commit suicide each year

3 Number of inmates who committed suicide in 2015

5 Number of inmates who have committed suicide so far this year

Elizabeth Forbes, director of the criminal justice reform group NC Cure, said she recently received two letters from inmates in solitary confinement who expressed suicidal thoughts.

She says she also has gotten many complaints from inmates who say that when they request visits with mental health professionals, they often are forced to wait four to six months. Often, the best they can hope for on short notice, Forbes said, is a visit with a nurse who might not have the experience to identify serious mental health problems.

State prison officials say their policy and practice is to ensure that inmates diagnosed with mental illnesses are seen by either psychologists or licensed social workers every 45 days, at a minimum.

Forbes also questions why no one was able to stop the two inmates in segregation from killing themselves.

“These are restrictive units where there is supposed to be a tremendous amount of observation,” Forbes said. “There is no excuse. Where are the cameras?”

This year’s other victims include:

▪ Tony J. Davis, 26, who was found dead April 23 at Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton, about 45 miles southeast of Charlotte. He apparently hanged himself with a bedsheet, said Polkton Police Chief Matthew Norris.

Doing time for murder, Davis was housed in “maximum control,” one of the most restrictive forms of solitary confinement. Under state prison policy, inmates in segregation “must be personally observed by custody staff at least every hour on an irregular schedule.”

▪ Lori Pote, 52, who died May 1 at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. Pote, who was serving time for embezzlement, reportedly was found ill in her bed early that morning. She was transported to a local hospital where she was later declared dead, the result of an apparent suicide.

Investigators suspect she overdosed on prescription medication, said State Capitol Police Chief Glen Allen.

▪ Steven Hass, 39, who died shortly after midnight on May 5 at Central Prison in Raleigh. Hass, of Statesville, recently had completed a prison sentence for committing sexual offenses with a child. But he returned to prison in April after a parole violation.

He apparently died after hanging himself with a sheet, Allen said.

▪ Bernard Sanford, who was found unresponsive in his cell Jan. 27 at Maury Correctional Institution, southeast of Raleigh. Sanford, 72, was serving consecutive life sentences for convictions of murder, arson, rape, assault with a deadly weapon and other offenses.

It’s extremely rare for so many inmates to commit suicide in such a short period. In the 25 years ending in 2015, 68 suicides were reported in the state’s prisons – an average of about 2.7 per year.

Many other inmates reportedly die of natural causes. Forbes questions whether some of those inmates are really dying from inadequate medical care.

“We have hundreds of people who die inside our prison system,” she said. “And I don’t believe the cause of death may necessarily be what’s written on their death certificates.”

Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Statement from David Guice, N.C. Commissioner of Prisons

Employees within the Division of Adult Correction/Prisons take seriously any unanticipated death of an inmate in the care and custody of the Division. All unanticipated deaths, to include suicides, are thoroughly reviewed by an internal multidisciplinary team, independent of the facility’s chain of command. In addition, all unanticipated deaths are reported immediately to local law enforcement to determine whether criminal activity contributed to the death of an inmate. A third independent review is conducted in response to the Division’s request for an autopsy by the Medical Examiner’s office. Only when all three reviews are complete does the Division have the most accurate and full account of an unanticipated death.

The rate of suicide in the larger society and within our prisons and jails fluctuates from one year to the next, as there are numerous factors that contribute to the personal decision to end one’s life. When considering specific rates of suicide, a more informative approach might be to look at the average of prison suicides over a selected period of time. In August 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated that, from 2001-2013, the average annual mortality rate by suicide per 100,000 state prisoners was 16 for males and 11 for females. Given these statistics, if North Carolina’s state prison system were to be in line with the average rate of suicide in state prisons, we would anticipate approximately 6 deaths per year among males and 3 among females. According to an April study from the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of suicides occurring in the general public within the United States has risen to a 30-year high, increasing by 2% per year starting in 2006.

While any case of suicide is unfortunate, the number of suicide deaths is greatly outnumbered by successful interventions that help prevent suicidal inmates from acting to take their own lives. During the past six months, behavioral health staff have conducted hundreds of suicide risk assessments and placed many inmates on suicide watch precautions. In a number of instances, inmates threatening self-injury, or engaging in self-injurious acts, were interrupted by correctional officers and maintained on constant observation until they could be assessed by a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker. Despite these many successes in crisis management, there is a recognition that human behavior often is unpredictable and some individuals show no overt sign of suicide risk prior to a lethal attempt.

Regarding your question about the amount of time a mentally ill inmate has to wait for an appointment with a mental health professional, the following information regarding our policy and practice is offered. Inmates are screened for mental health needs at a diagnostic center and referred to a psychologist within 7 days if in need of further assessment. If diagnosed with mental illness, they are seen at a minimum of every 45 days by either a psychologist or a licensed social worker, and every 90 days by a psychiatrist if prescribed medication. Of course, any staff member may refer an inmate to a mental health professional at any time and, if the issue is emergent, a psychologist is on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week, to attend to such issues.

Regarding your question about making rounds, security rounds made by correctional officers are required once per hour in restrictive housing units. If, during the course of a review, it is learned that rounds were not conducted in accordance with policy, appropriate corrective action is taken.

Finally, in keeping with confidentiality requirements and out of respect for families who have experienced the loss of a loved one, we are not in a position to provide details pertaining to individual cases of suicide.

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