Suicides on the rise at Massachusetts prisons, jails

Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Billerica is run by Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, who is also the newly named president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association. This jail saw two inmate suicides in 2017. (Photo: Chris Burrell/NECIR)

Fourteen inmates died by suicide in Massachusetts prisons and jails in 2017, the highest such number of deaths since 2014, according to state and county data.

Those who died include four who hanged themselves in state prisons and ten who died in county jails that together house about 20,000 prisoners, according to data collected by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Former football star Aaron Hernandez – who committed suicide in April in his prison cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley — is by far the most notorious of such deaths, prompting headlines cross the world about his remarkable fall from sports hero to convicted murderer.

At the time, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Hernandez’s suicide — or any other inmate’s — suggests “something clearly went wrong” in the prison system tasked with his confinement and called for an investigation into what happened.

But suicides at state correctional facilities continue to mount. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, said the increasing number is “alarming’’ and another reminder of the need for criminal justice reform, currently being considered in the state Legislature.

Corrections officials are not only tasked with keeping inmates alive but helping rehabilitating them, he said. “The fact that they can’t keep them alive is deeply disturbing,’’ he said.

This jail cell at Barnstable County Correctional Facility in Buzzards Bay is designed to prevent suicides with breakaway hooks and special windows. But a 35-year-old mother of two was able to take her life in the same kind of cell last summer at the Barnstable jail. Photo: Chris Burrell/NECIR)

Those who died include Jessica DiCesare, a 35-year-old mother of two who hanged herself in Barnstable County jail last year several weeks after her arrest for drug and theft charge. According to a state police investigation, DiCesare left papers behind in her cell including the statement, “We are treated like sub-animals here,’’ and “I want to die.”

Her mother, Sue DiCesare, said she wants to know why the jail isn’t better equipped to protect people like her daughter, who battled drug addiction and  mental illness. Jessica DiCesare’s bail was just $500 but her mother thought it was more dangerous for her daughter to be on the street, out of jail, and didn’t pay the court.

“I thought she would be safe, thought it was a safe place for her to be,’’ DiCesare said. “It turned out that it wasn’t.”

Barnstable County jail officials declined to discuss details of DiCesare’s death. Her death added to 10 men and women who died by suicide in the state’s county jail system, two more than the year before. The system of 13 sheriff-run county jails houses some 10,500 pretrial detainees and inmates sentenced to up to 2 ½ years for their crimes.

The 2017 suicide data follows a NECIR investigation published in the Boston Globe in May that showed at least 42 men and women died by suicide in Massachusetts’ county jails since 2012, more than twice the number of suicides in the state prison system over the period even though both house roughly the same number of inmates.

Jail inmates can be more at risk for suicide because they come straight off the streets, often struggling with drug withdrawal, mental illness and other health problems that make them especially vulnerable to what experts call “the shock of confinement.” There is no state office that collects death data in county jails or regulator that requires county sheriffs to report the results of internal mortality reviews.

Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, now president of the Massachusetts Sheriff’s Association, said county corrections officials have been working to reduce the number of suicides, including holding mental health and suicide prevention training with staff.

He said he recently hired national suicide prevention expert Lindsay Hayes to evaluate the jail’s suicide prevention efforts and some other counties are following suit. The report isn’t concluded yet, he said, but already jail officials are planning to improve communications with families concerned about an inmate’s mental health.

Koutoujian said his jail population is filled with troubled inmates — about 42 percent of those who first enter the facility need to undergo detox and about 50 percent have a history of mental health issues. Staff always grieves when an inmate dies, he said, but added that little media attention is paid to the number of people whose lives are saved.

“It’s never how many people you have pulled off a wire or a rope or a towel, how many people have you stopped from killing themselves or harming themselves because of the good work you are doing,’’ he said. “Our job is a tremendous struggle with this population.”

But Bonnie Tenneriello, a senior attorney from Prisoners’ Legal Services in Boston, said more needs to be done to protect troubled inmates. She says the state lacks standards for how the county jails are run.

“The problem is there’s no effective oversight of the county facilities,’’ she said. “Prisoners are suffering unnecessarily.”

Four inmates died in the custody of the Department of Corrections last year compared to two in 2016, according to state data.

State prisons house about 9,500 inmates most of them who are committed to serve 2 ½ years or more for their crimes. Two prisoners who died by suicide last year were civilly committed in state institutions for sexual offenders and substance abusers.

They include Richard Gillis who hanged himself in August at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, an institution that houses convicted sex offenders serving time and those who are civilly committed because they are sexually dangerous, according to state officials.

Gillis had been mostly incarcerated or held since 1990 when he was convicted of rape, except for a short release where he was arrested for un-related charges. He was currently appealing a civil commitment to the treatment center, claiming he was wrongfully imprisoned.

Gillis’s attorney Michael Nam-Krane said he was disappointed to learn that his client was able to die by suicide in a locked mental health facility. “The fact that Gillis was a mental health ‘patient’ in the custody of the DOC raises concerns about his monitoring and treatment before he died,’’ he said in an email.

A month later, David McKinley hanged himself at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth. The 29-year-old troubled drug abuser was civilly committed to the center, a former minimum-security prison run by the state Department of Corrections.

McKinley’s death prompted questions from prison advocates about the suitability of housing substance abusers in a jail-like setting.

Department of Corrections officials declined to discuss specifics about the inmates’ deaths. They said the four suicides in 2017, while concerning, do not follow a similar pattern that pointed to any one single problem in suicide prevention.

“We remain committed to working with nationally recognized experts on suicide prevention in corrections, training staff, and coordinating services with health clinicians,” said Cara Savelli, a Department of Corrections spokesperson. “Every suicide is a tragedy.”

NECIR interns Cynthia Fernandez and Claire Tran contributed to this story. Mckim can be reached at jenifer.mckim@necir.org and Burrell at burrellc@bu.edu.