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A Death in Solitary: Did Corrections Officers Help an Inmate Kill Himself?

A convicted killer in Pennsylvania committed suicide in lock-down. His family is asking whether corrections officers helped him out.

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Of Pennsylvania's 26 state prisons, several contain special needs units for those with mental or physical health care needs, but only one prison is officially designated as a mental health facility: SCI Waymart. According to DOC's website, Waymart houses "mentally disabled male inmates who require inpatient psychiatric care and treatment." (As of June 30, SCI Waymart was one of only five state prisons not over capacity.)

Despite the judge's orders that Bullock be placed in a secure mental health facility, Bullock wasn't transferred to SCI Waymart. Instead, he stayed at SCI Camp Hill until sometime in 2004, when he was sent to SCI Huntingdon.

From there, he was transferred to Waymart, where he stayed until early 2005. But then he was transferred back to Huntingdon for more than two years.

About this time, Centini says, DOC stopped providing Bullock with Seroquel, an expensive antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (Citing pending litigation, DOC officials declined to address this claim.)

Centini believes Bullock was transferred from prison to prison because of his multiple suicide attempts.

"The pattern that seems to have developed was that they would put him into general population somewhere, and when he would start to decompensate, they would transfer him to a place that has a special needs unit or a mental health unit," she says. "He would start to show signs of improvement, they would put him back into general population, and the cycle would continue."

Between 2007 and 2009, Centini says, Bullock was transferred to at least five different prisons within DOC. During this time, she adds, DOC's health practitioners would not provide Bullock with Seroquel even when he showed suicidal ideation, which he did frequently: Bullock attempted suicide as many as five times during this span.

Last year, after Bullock's final stay in a DOC mental health facility, he received news that he would be transferred to SCI Dallas. This prospect frightened him: According to his parents' lawsuit, Bullock told prison officials that one of the COs at SCI Dallas was a relative of Lisa Hargrave, his victim.

SCI Dallas officials were aware that one of the COs guarding inmates in the prison's general population was related to Hargrave, Centini says, and at Bullock's request, they twice asked DOC to transfer Bullock.

According to DOC deputy press secretary Sue Bensinger, prison superintendents have absolute discretion to reject prisoners' transfer applications before passing them along to DOC. That Michael Klopotoski, SCI Dallas' then-superintendent, sent Bullock's two transfer requests to DOC brass may indicate that he felt Bullock's concern was at least somewhat legitimate.

However, Centini says, citing DOC Office of Professional Responsibility records she obtained in discovery — but declined to release to  City Paper  — in SCI Dallas officials' first attempt to transfer Bullock, they forgot to include the name of the CO allegedly related to Hargrave, so DOC declined the transfer. The second request was turned down due to Bullock's "misbehavior" — "scratching his arm with a staple," Centini says.

(Because his name is not included in the lawsuit, his relationship with Hargrave could not be independently verified and he could not be reached for comment by press time,  City Paper  is not identifying that CO.)

After Bullock requested the transfer, Centini says, SCI Dallas officials moved him into administrative custody in the prison's RHU while DOC processed his petitions.

Here, Centini says, Bullock started hearing voices again. He scratched his wrist with a staple he found — which, Centini says, prompted DOC to deny his second transfer request. SCI Dallas officials then placed Bullock in disciplinary custody — in a cell Centini calls the "torture cell," which she says was outfitted with 24-hour lighting and no amenities except a tiny desk and a hunk of concrete to sleep on. Centini calls this transition "a punishment" handed to Bullock for again attempting suicide.

 
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