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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.

When Matthew Bullock, a 32-year-old convicted killer, fashioned a noose from a bed sheet that he wasn't supposed to have, secured it around his neck, tied it to thin steel bars in the face-high window of his solitary confinement cell, then sat down hard in an effort to break his neck and suffocate himself, it wasn't the first time he'd attempted suicide. In fact, according to a civil lawsuit filed in November 2009 by Bullock's parents against officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and officials and state-contracted health care providers at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas (SCI Dallas) — where Bullock's lifeless body was found hanging on Aug. 24, 2009 — Bullock, who had a long history of mental illness, psychotic episodes and auditory hallucinations, had tried to kill himself at least 20 documented times in the decade before his 2003 incarceration, and several more times since. Autopsy photos taken after Bullock's suicide showed that his forearms were covered from wrist to bicep with scars, apparently self-inflicted by razors and knives. One scar on his right inner wrist appeared to be recent, with scabs only superficially formed. The scars were both horizontal and vertical. Veins were crossed and traced while cuts intersected and mingled. The number of suicidal cuts in both arms was too high to count.

Yet Richard Elders, DOC's director of the Bureau of Health Care Services, wrote in a Sept. 2 report obtained by Bullock's parents' attorneys: "Offender Bullock did not give any indications that he was going to harm himself. ... There was no indication noted by staff members who regularly interacted with Offender Bullock that he was depressed and would take his own life."

Bullock's parents say that's simply not true. In their lawsuit, they claim that not only had Bullock tried to kill himself while in custody on multiple occasions, but their son also had repeatedly told SCI Dallas' corrections officers (COs) about his suicidal inclinations. The COs didn't ignore him, according to the lawsuit and written statements provided by fellow inmates: They taunted him — and actually encouraged him to take his own life.

When he told COs of his suicidal tendencies, the lawsuit continues, prison officials moved him from a solitary cell that was within view of an observation camera to one that wasn't. Then, the lawsuit alleges, someone slipped him "instrumentalities which are commonly used to commit or attempt suicide" — a bed sheet, which suicidal inmates in "the hole" are not supposed to have — and COs "incited [Bullock] to 'kill himself.'"

After that, family attorney Shelley Centini says, Bullock was left alone for hours, though DOC policy mandates that inmates in solitary be checked on every 30 minutes.

During that time, Matthew Bullock made good on his death wish.

The Bullocks' lawsuit not only raises the possibility that SCI Dallas COs played a role in Bullock's suicide. It also paints the picture of a prison system that is woefully ill-equipped for handling the mentally ill, and implies that, at least in Bullock's case, it relied on a horrific solitary confinement unit guarded by abusive COs to sequester the insane.

Additionally, according to the lawsuit, DOC health care contractors MHM Services Inc. and PHS Correctional Healthcare had "policies or customs includ[ing] providing the least amount of medical care possible to [SCI Dallas] inmates so that MHM and/or PHS could reap the largest possible profit." (Citing the pending litigation, PHS and MHM declined to comment on the allegations. MHM vice president and general counsel Edwin Hightower points out that because MHM's contract with DOC to provide inmates with mental health care is based on services provided, there's no financial incentive to cut corners.)

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