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There are Too Many Suicides Happening in Prison

There are Too Many Suicides Happening in Prison

On Monday, July 22, Billy Sell was found dead in his cell, evidently by his own hand. Barely a week later, Ohio inmate Billy Slagle hanged himself in his cell on August 4, days before he was scheduled for execution. Deaths in U.S. prisons are not uncommon, and some of those deaths are suicides, but two in such a short period of time is cause for alarm, especially given the circumstances surrounding the alleged suicides.

Billy Sell was one of the prisoners participating in the famous California hunger strike, and had in fact resumed eating only the day before his death. Like other members of the strike, he had been protesting the brutal conditions in the prison’s isolation units (like the one he died in) and fighting for more access to the outside world as well as basic human rights like edible food and time outdoors in the fresh air.

Given his participation in the strike, Sell was undoubtedly in a fragile medical condition, a verified issue with other hunger strikes. Extreme deprivation in an isolation unit paired with starvation-related health problems could have contributed to an altered mental status and distress, except that other inmates do not report evidence of suicidal ideation, and in fact say he was seeking medical treatment before his death, a strong indicator that he had a desire to live. If his death was a suicide as claimed, he’d be among the 50% of prison suicides that take place in solitary confinement, and the almost three prisoners a month who kill themselves in the state of California.

He was willing to die in his fight for better conditions, and died without knowing whether the hunger strikers would be taken seriously and the state of California would move in the direction of positive, lasting reform for its prisons. California’s prison conditions are notorious, including severely overcrowded facilities even after a mandate to reduce crowding through prison realignment and mass releases, along with limited access to health services, particularly psychiatric care. It’s entirely possible that Sell could have received treatment before death if prison officials had been more attentive to his needs.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Billy Sagle cheated the executioner just days before his scheduled death, choosing to hang himself instead of waiting for the execution process and all that went with it. Peculiarly, in states that administer the death penalty, condemned prisoners are placed on suicide watch to prevent this very thing — Sagle had not yet been placed on watch. The paradox of planning a prisoner’s death while simultaneously preventing him from dying is rather mystifying.

Slagle’s case was complex, and it’s possible that if it were to be tried again today, it wouldn’t have had the same outcome. Even the prosecutor in the original case called for leniency as the execution date neared, but either 44-year-old Slagle was tired of waiting, or he was troubled by other emotional issues from his childhood and his long stint in prison. Convicted at age 18, when he was barely old enough to be considered eligible for the death penalty, Slagle spent his whole adult life in prison, and like other prisoners who spend much of their time in isolation, he undoubtedly developed mental distress and could have experienced an exacerbation of underlying mental health issues.

Both of these tragic deaths highlight not just the fact that prisoners commit suicide in the United States on a disturbingly frequent basis, but that prison conditions do not appear to be shifting to address the issue. Given that suicide is a known problem in prisons, especially in California, which holds the dubious distinction of hosting the most prison suicides annually, it’s clear that better mental health services need to be available. In addition, prisons need to be looking at ways to alleviate the conditions that drive prisoners to desperate measures, and they might start by looking to the issues brought up by the hunger strikers for some obvious suggestions on areas where the prison system needs improvement.

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Photo credit: Bart Everson.

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81 comments

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4:52PM PDT on Aug 21, 2013

...and one wonders why...?

9:44AM PDT on Aug 10, 2013

Prisons are sadly in need of much reform. The biggest problem is that they are being run for profit.

9:57AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

cont'd (unless you're counting in the visitors room - the inmates are not allowed to go near them), they do have a 'store' for snacks/cigs and those items are again about five times the regular price; there are NO conjugal visits and some can't even touch their visitors; contrary to what you believe - many inmates are abused by other inmates AND guards.

It is not supposed to be fun or comfortable - but it should be humane and not abusive.

9:53AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

Marilyn you said, "Our prisons are clean, the prisoners get 3 FREE healthy meals/day, they get FREE medical, psychological and dental care, they have FREE entertainment in the form of TV, computers, games and reading, they can get a FREE college education while there, they have vending machines for snacks and a commissary for smokes and other goodies, they have visitors and conjugal visits and for the most part, there are always exception in this case, they are not abused."

Have you ever known anyone actually IN prison? (Thanks Marc P for your rebuttal as well!) I have and I must tell you that (this should be obvious) not ALL prisons are like what you describe. The six states I am familiar with have very little of what you describe. The prisoners themselves clean the prison; the meals they get are hardly healthy, bland to inedible with small portion sizes - many times not what is recommended for the general population; the "free" medical/dental/psychological services are a joke. Anything more than a bandaid (and sometimes even then) is questioned and analyzed for days, weeks even months all the while the prisoner is ill/hurt/in pain; the radio and tv available for purchase are almost five times regular price with small b&w screens, no color, there are no computers or internet access, magazines are limited, cards were the only games allowed; the 'education' is GED and poor drug rehab programs, there are no college classes; there are no vending machines (unless you'

9:35AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

So sorry for your loss Lisa H. It happens far too often.

9:06AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

This doesn't surprise me with the conditions of prisons and lack of federal inspections

7:18AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

such a sad thing to consider, and frightening, i am so blessed to have never had a loved one in a jail or prison.

6:58AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

Thank you S. E. Smith, for Sharing this!

5:57AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

Read Les Miserables, don't just see the movie; until after you have read all 1500 pages of this masterpiece written by a genius who is far wiser, more intelligent, and more human that the kind of hypocrites who in their smug self-righteous simulated moral superiority celebrate the suicide of some questionably convicted non-violent offender and who champion a system that can have to say for itself, "Eat your heart out, Ariel Castro!" and who, while defending family Christian values against the John Birch Society's warnings about the secret homosexual agenda applaud homosexual gang rapes of teenagers in prison by so doing, can say, "Eat your heart out, Jerry Sandusky!"
Those who get their thrills out of suicide generating sadism in our prison system are no better than the worst psychopaths in prison. Those who call suicide "the easy way out" have never suffered and they know nothing about being hurt because they have never experienced it.

5:25AM PDT on Aug 9, 2013

I've worked in the field, it's sad that the "justice system" is not "just" it is badly flawed. Too many are wrong fully convicted. Thanks for the article.

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