I began this blog in May 2009 following the death of Marcia Powell at Perryville State Prison in Goodyear, Arizona. It is not intended to prescribe the path that leads to freedom from the prison industrial complex.

Rather, these are just my observations in arguably the most racist, fascist, militaristic state in the nation at a critical time in history for a number of intersecting liberation movements. From Indigenous resistance to genocidal practices, to the fight over laws like SB1070 and the ban on Ethnic Studies, Arizona is at the center of many battles for human rights, and thus the struggle for prison abolition as well - for none are free until all are. I retired the blog in APRIL 2013.

Visit me now at Arizona Prison Watch or Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ

Friday, September 10, 2010

Despair Behind Bars: Suicide in Arizona Prisons

Today being International Suicide Prevention Day, I thought it would be a good time to remember both the victims and survivors of the kind of despair that drives one to take one's life. For some reason, Arizonans are much more prone to suicide than most of the rest of the country. As reported by the Arizona Republic last year:

"Arizona perennially finishes in the top 10 nationally for suicides per capita, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2007, 986 Arizonans died by suicide, twice the number of those who were murdered, according to Magellan. The rate of suicide was 15.9 per 100,000 people; in New York, the rate was 6.9 per 100,000.

Among people with serious mental illnesses, the risk of suicide is roughly six times higher than for people who have not been diagnosed, according to academic research..."
Considering that suicides in this state far outnumber homicides, one has to wonder why we allow life-saving mental health services to be cut each year while we busy ourselves with feeding increasing numbers of people - and public funds - to the criminal justice system.

Because of the nature of my blogs, my focus here has been on prisoners. My Arizona Prison Watch archives are not exhaustive of all prisoner suicides in the state over the past 15 months, but I believe I have accessed all those who were reported by the AZ Department of Corrections. They are as follows:

23 y.o. Lasasha Cherry (9/08/10) ASPC-Perryville/Lumley

28 y.o.
Patrick Lee Ross (8/31/10) Great Plains Correctional Facility, OK (Cornell under contract with AZ)

28 y.o. Geshell Fernandez (7/23/10) ASPC-Perryville/Lumley

26 y.o.
Anthony Lester (7/12/10) ASPC-Tucson/Manzanita

29 y.o. Robert Medina (7/11/10) ASPC-Eyman/Browning

17 y.o. Jerry Kulp (5/11/10) ASPC-Tucson/Minors' Unit

46 y.o. James Adams (3/14/10) ASPC-Eyman/Browning (Death Row)

28 y.o. Jesus Cota (1/10/10) ASPC-Eyman/Special Management Unit

47 y.o. Monte McCarty (12/26/09) ASPC-Eyman/Special Management Unit

18 y.o. Hernan Cuevas (10/10/09) ASPC-Phoenix, Baker Unit

32 y.o. William Englebert (8/22/09) ASPC-Tucson

30 y.o. Erick Cervantes (8/14/09) ASPC-Eyman/Special Management Unit

33 y.o. Dung Ung (6/25/09) ASPC-Lewis

37 y.o. Caesar Bojorquez (6/28/09) ASPC-Eyman/Browning

Another tragic loss this year was the life of 17-year old Presley Austin, who killed himself at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections' Adobe Mountain School in Phoenix in May. By accounts of other kids there, Presley was bullied to death within a week of being placed in a unit with more violent youth after he was in a fight on the mental health unit. His was the first suicide at the AzDJC in seven years.

My condolences to all those loved ones left behind in the wake of these tragedies.

Prior to Marcia Powell's death in May, 2009, notices of inmate deaths were seldom posted at the ADC news site. Now they seem to be pretty consistently updated, regardless of cause of death, which I give Director Charles Ryan some credit for - as far as I know, they don't have to do that.

The high number of prisoner suicides is disturbing, however, and should be investigated more closely, if the ADC hasn't already done so - especially those in the Special Management Unit, where I believe there is a higher concentration of prisoners with mental illness held in solitary confinement. At Perryville, both of the women who suicided were on the maximum security unit, where prisoners with serious mental illness are also frequently held. Theoretically, while it may be a higher-risk population, the environments should be better controlled and the staff should have some specialized training.

The national average for suicides in prisons is 14/100,000. The Arizona Department of Corrections warehouses about 40,000 prisoners at any given time, with about 20,000 new ones replacing those departing each year.

There are several good resources on suicide in jails/prisons in the side column of Arizona Prison Watch. I'd also recommend the following posts/articles, for those interested:
Mentally Ill Offenders Strain Juvenile System

Man's Death in Private Immigration Jail Bares Difficulty of Detention Overhaul

Suicide Among Incarcerated Veterans

The other way we tend to die in custody

Top Ten Places to Suicide: Arizona.

(this post includes a link to a moving slide show of quilt panels made to memorialize suicide victims in Arizona)

Real Lives Loved and Lost: "Criminals" and Suicide.

SOS: Suicide in Massachusetts state prisons.

Teen Kills Himself After Being Put in Solitary for…Trying to Kill Himself

Illinois Youth Prisons See More Suicide Attempts

I should also note that corrections officers themselves are also at increased risk for suicide - far higher than that of prisoners. Two that I know of occurred over the course of the past 15 months. The first was an officer at Perryville prison for women, who shot himself on the prison grounds - along the perimeter - not long after Marcia Powell was killed. The second was a youth corrections officer at Adobe Mountain School in May, the same week Presley died. I'm sure there were more, however, and that all left heartbreak in their wake.

I know far less about the above officer's suicides than I do about the prisoners I've covered, but my condolences go out to their families, friends and colleagues as well. I have also survived the suicide of a loved one - my ex-partner, who was also my friend and colleague through the many years I worked with people who were homeless in Michigan. He sat down in front of a train. Losing him - particularly that way - was devastating to our entire community. I imagine the officers' deaths hit their respective communities hard as well.

This post is for those still here and struggling to survive. Don't give up hope, no matter where you are or where you're heading. Even in prison there is always a role you can play to make this a better world - and we need all the help we can get these days.

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