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.
Photo credit: Bart Everson.