Jail suicides linked to staffing

Meggan Clark, Register Staff
MILFORD — Understaffed state prisons and poor mental health care are to blame for the spike in inmate suicides last year, union officials said.
Wayne Meyers, president of AFSCME Local 1565, which represents 2,500 state correction officers said, "You have a generalized staff shortage that’s quite serious and, on top of that, you have a crisis on how the mental health issues are handled."
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the New Haven Register recently obtained state Department of Correction reports on seven inmate suicides in 2004. The DOC found that guards falsified log books on at least two occasions, responded slowly to some suicide attempts and, according to prisoners, were in some cases grossly indifferent to human life.
Nine inmates committed suicide in state prisons in 2004. In previous years the state has averaged three to five suicides a year.
In one case, the DOC overruled a judge’s decision to place a Milford man on suicide watch, considering the ruling only a recommendation. The man hanged himself two days later in the Bridgeport Correctional Center.
Meyers maintains prisoner mental health care is "minimal" and inmates receive only cursory screening for suicide risk and other issues upon admission.
"We have (correction officers) being ordered two, three, four, sometimes five days in a row to work 16¼ hours.
That’s been a big problem. On the medical side, they continue to cut medical staff statewide at the facilities," Meyers said.
Medical staff also no longer work second or third shifts at many state facilities, and inmates sometimes have to wait days before getting medical or mental health care, he said.
Many new inmates are despondent, detoxifying from a drug habit or going without prescription psychiatric medications, Meyers said, which puts them at higher risk of suicide. Because of short-staffing, a single guard can be responsible for 100 "extremely needy inmates," expected to minister to their needs, conduct 15-minute tours, do paperwork and other required tasks.
The DOC, however, vehemently denies these allegations, maintaining its prisons are not understaffed and the mental health and medical care "afforded" to inmates is "appropriate" and "constitutional."
DOC spokesman Brian Garnett, in a prepared statement, said, "The Connecticut Department of Correction is not understaffed in either its custody or medical/mental health ranks.
"Staffing was not an issue with regard to the suicides that were experienced in 2004," he added.
Meyers, however, said the union is suing on behalf of two correction officers, Carroll Rainey in New Haven and Raphael Gayle in Bridgeport, who were dismissed as a result of inmate suicides, contending the department places unrealistic requirements on them given current staffing levels.
Rainey and Gayle were dismissed for failing to conduct cell block tours as frequently as required. They were likely attending to other duties or emergencies, Meyers said.
Gayle, he said, has twice been cited for saving inmates’ lives and has been honored for saving the life of a child who choked in the prison waiting room.
"This guy’s not someone who doesn’t do his job," he said. "He’s a good employee. He’s a longtime employee."
Garnett declined to comment on whether layoffs of medical staff in 2002-03 affected the quality of inmate medical and mental health care, which is provided under contract by the University of Connecticut Health Center’s Correctional Managed Health Care, a public agency that employs 700, of which approximately 50 percent are nurses.
"Our medical and mental health treatment afforded to the offender population ... is an appropriate, constitutional, community standard of care," he said.
Maureen McGuire, spokeswoman for the University of Connecticut Health Center, referred all questions to the DOC.
Rich Harris, a spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell, said the governor considers the staffing level and medical and mental health care at state prison facilities adequate. He said the DOC has narrowed open positions from 10 percent of total staff in 2003 to 6 percent today.
"It’s important to remember that they never don’t cover a position that has to be staffed," he said. "The medical and mental health screenings that inmates get, particularly on intake, have stepped up quite a bit (in response to the suicides), and if there’s any indication of a need, they get a more rigorous assessment. A great deal of effort has been put into making sure that the medical and mental health needs are being met. This is an area where the commissioner is working very hard to make improvements."
Prisoners, their families and the correction officers’ union paint a far different picture of prison conditions.
Meyers said inmates have to fill out requests for medical attention, and they get it when it’s available — "maybe not that day, maybe not the next day, maybe not the next day."
"There’s a cost in human lives, there’s a cost in morale," said Larry Dorman, spokesman for Local 4, which is under the umbrella of Meyers’ union. "I think they’re trying to do something, but they need more staff on these units."
Patrick McGahen of Milford said he was denied his epileptic and psychiatric medication while detained in Bridgeport for a few days recently and had 13 seizures.
"I wanted to kill myself," he said.
Former York Correctional Center inmate LeShanda Long, said she believes the Sept. 27 suicide of inmate Barbara Mahon could have been prevented if Mahon had been allowed to obtain mental health services she requested. Long said if inmates are not suicidal when they go into prison, conditions are so bad that "they make you want to kill yourself."
James McGaughey, executive director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, a federally-funded state agency, has assisted with lawsuits against the DOC over conditions at Northern Correctional Institute in Somers, the state’s maximum security prison, and Garner Correctional Institute in Newtown, where the majority of the mentally ill are housed.
At Garner and Northern, he said, mental health care has "consisted of sort of cell-front interviews."
Inmates who expressed suicidal thoughts or symptoms of mental illness were generally punished with loss of clothing, freedoms and privileges like getting phone calls.
At Northern, he said, suicidal inmates have been put in four-point restraints and observed continuously.
Mental health staffing was so slim at the facilities his office investigated that "the psychiatrists who were on duty often did not get to see people personally for whom they were ordering medication changes," he said.
Under a settlement agreement recently negotiated with the DOC, inmates will get private interviews with mental health staff and certain staffing ratios will be required, he said.
He said intake screenings for pre-trial detainees are superficial at best.
"If (the admitting facility doesn’t) have the staff they need, some nurse looks at (a prisoner) and says, ‘Oh, they can wait till tomorrow.’ Well, maybe they can’t," McGaughey said.
Garnett said the DOC now conducts "extensive" intake evaluations.
He added that DOC policies have been improved in an attempt to prevent future suicides, including increasing cell inspections, improving medical and mental health care, banning shoelaces and housing inmates with cellmates whenever possible.
Garnett said the department has tried to make its facilities more "suicide-resistant" and now requires that inmates who come into the system with "suicide watch" noted on court paperwork be under continuous observation "pending a thorough mental health observation."
For Zennache Williams, 21, conditions at state prisons are a personal matter. Her mother is a correction officer.
Marlin Bugg, 23, the father of her 2-year-old and her boyfriend since age 13, killed himself at New Haven Correctional Center last year.
Bugg, of Waterbury, was being held on firearm possession charges. He hung himself with a sheet tied to a wall-mounted smoke detector on May 9.
Shortly before his suicide, Williams said other inmates noticed something was not right with him. She said another inmate told her Bugg said he wanted to go to a "sanctuary" and requested a transfer to another unit so he wouldn’t be housed alone.
He was not moved, she said. Other inmates warned the correction officers that something was wrong, but no one did anything, she said.
Williams said she knows what it’s like to be a correction officer, and she isn’t angry at the department — "he was determined to do what he did" — but she believes Bugg’s suicide could have been prevented.
"He hung himself on something that’s inside the cell that there was no use for, that was able to hold his weight (250 pounds)," she said. "I do think there should be some precautions."