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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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"OUT OF SIGHT"

It's unclear how many prisoners at SCI Dallas, or at any other state prison, are mentally ill. A study released in July by the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology that looked at New York City's Riker's Island, Chicago's Cook County Jail and the Los Angeles County Jail determined that 15 percent of each of those institutions' populations was mentally ill. Other studies put the percentage much higher, as much as 50 percent or more. But if you assume that 15 percent of SCI Dallas inmates are mentally ill, that's at least 320 inmates, who are treated by the four psychologists and one psychiatrist the prison usually has available each day, Walsh says. Many of these inmates, because of their disruptive nature, are bound to wind up in the hole.

Under any circumstance, says Lobel, the Pittsburgh law professor, that's not where they should be. Even more so if the abuse claims made about SCI Dallas' RHU are accurate.

Nonetheless, he acknowledges, "People don't really want to hear about what's going on in prisons. We want to keep prisoners out of sight and out of mind. And so legislators, the elite, Congress, they just don't really want to hear about prisoners unless one has been murdered or something like that. But if a prisoner's locked up for 10 years, I don't think anyone really wants to hear about how their mental health is being influenced by the prison system."

Walsh, strangely enough, offers a somewhat concurring thought. He began his career working for the state in mental health facilities outside DOC's jurisdiction.

"I understand the importance of mental health," he says. "But I realized very early on in my career that it was a shrinking field and that the Department of Corrections is always growing, always getting bigger. I knew there were opportunities for advancement here. You just don't have that when you're working in mental health care."

"NORMATIVE FEATURES''

An unidentified inmate made reference to Bullock's death in his letters to HRC: "[A]t least one inmate committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell while I've been in this RHU. ... The jail swept that incident under the rug and put a new inmate in that cell the very next day."

The HRC report contains eight separate accounts from inmates in SCI Dallas' RHU who say Bullock was driven to suicide by abuse and harassment. Though Bullock was clearly predisposed toward killing himself, one inmate, Carrington Keys, who's serving up to 70 years following robbery and assault convictions, said there were COs who "encouraged prisoner Matthew Bullock to kill himself." Keys also claims that COs in Dallas' RHU bragged about their role in Bullock's suicide.

 

Isaac Sanchez, 24, serving up to seven years for charges related to a York burglary in late 2006, wrote that COs at Dallas had called Bullock a "child molester, snitch, pedophile and many other disrespectful names." Sanchez wrote that COs also told Bullock "that they don't take his suicide threats seriously and that if he wanted or needed a helping hand to assist his suicide task/threat," all he had to do was ask.

David Sierra, 30, who's serving time at SCI Dallas for a slew of 1997 Lebanon County charges including multiple counts of arson, robbery and aggravated assault, wrote that COs called "Bullock a child molester, and rapist," and "antagonized Bullock for days, telling him to kill himself," Sierra wrote. "This was an ongoing process until [Bullock] did what they forced him to do."

And John Paolino, 40, who's serving up to five years for DUI- and drug-related charges, wrote, "I hung myself Nov. 12 [2008], and all these people did was lock me in a room naked for 18 days and take every medication that had helped me. I wouldn't have hung myself if they would've [listened] to me. If they wouldn't have continually messed with all my medications."

 
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