Arizona Prisons Grapple with Upsurge in Inmate ‘Self-Harm’

More than 80 inmates tried to hang themselves so far this year, and 138 attempted drug overdoses, at a time when the Arizona Department of Corrections is under fire over allegedly inadequate health care. The state still has no mental health director, according to a report by the Phoenix public radio station.

Hundreds of people in Arizona prisons are hurting themselves and trying to take their own lives.

New data from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) show inmates are harming themselves at an alarmingly increasing rate.

Numbers collected by ADC show a dramatic uptick in self-harm among inmates in the past year. Total incidents increased by almost 70 percent.

In fiscal year 2017, more than 80 inmates tried to hang themselves, and 138 tried to overdose on illegal drugs.

Table courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections

The number of inmates using blunt-force trauma — which can include inserting objects in the body and banging the head against a wall — has almost tripled in a single year.

The surge in self-harm reports comes as ADC is attempting to settle a lawsuit over poor health-care conditions in state prisons.

But reports generated for that settlement show ADC and its private contractor Corizon are still understaffing critical health-care positions.

The latest numbers from August show the state prison in Douglas, AZ has no medical director and just one psych associate.

The state prison in Phoenix is designated for seriously mentally ill people. The facility has no psychiatric director, no mental health director and less than half of the psych technicians specified by the contract with Corizon.

There is also no state director of mental health.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to specify that the numbers reported by ADC are incidents of self-harm, not necessarily individual inmates.

MORE: Arizona Prison Health Care Contract Leads To ‘Severe Understaffing’

David Fathi, an attorney for the inmates in the settlement, said there may be other factors at play but the staffing shortages cannot be helping.

“This is behavior that we often see with mentally ill people in particular whose mental illness is not being effectively treated,” Fathi said.

Incidents of cutting increased by nearly 50 percent. Fathi said that while not all cutting incidents are life-threatening, they should be taken seriously.

“This is potentially lethal behavior. Some incidents of self-harm result in serious injury or even death,” Fathi said. “And that can happen even if the person doesn’t intend to cause death. Any kind of self-harm behavior has to be treated extremely seriously.”

Fathi called the numbers extraordinary and said the increase in self-harm events “cries out for some sort of investigation.”

In a written response to questions about the increase, ADC spokesman Andrew Wilder said “personnel work very hard to identify, intervene and prevent inmates from committing acts of self-harm.”

He said ADC will begin a mental-health training program for correctional officers this month.

But Wilder’s statement downplayed the seriousness of the self-harm numbers, saying they should not “be construed as all being suicide attempts, as they certainly are not.”

“More commonly, these self-harm behaviors involve scratching, biting, ingesting/inserting objects, banging one’s head or hitting one’s self, etc., where there is no intention to commit suicide,” Wilder said

Wilder said the state “has put into place a mental-health transitional watch program aimed at assisting inmates as they come off of a watch and transition back into a general population environment. The goal is to reduce incidents of self-harm behaviors. The department is already in the process of expanding the program.”

According to ADC, there have already been 142 incidents of self-harm in Arizona prisons in fiscal year 2018, putting it on track to be the worst year on record.

ADC August Health Care Staffing Report

Jimmy Jenkins is a 2017 John Jay/Measures for Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a slightly abridged version of a story broadcast earlier this week by KJZZ in Phoenix as part of his fellowship project. Readers’ comments are welcome.


America’s Expensive Prisons

Does shrinking the size of prison populations save taxpayers money? Not always, says a study released today by the Vera Institute of Justice. The study found that 25 states increased their spending on prisons even though the nation’s overall prison population has declined.

Does shrinking the size of prison populations save taxpayers money?  Not always, says a study released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.

In a survey of state  spending on incarceration, Vera researchers found that in 10 states where prison numbers declined, overall prison budgets actually increased by $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2015. Overall, 25 states—more than half of the 45 surveyed—reported prison spending increases during that period, even though the number of individuals incarcerated nationwide has been dropping since 2009.

The Vera researchers suggested the increase was due to higher costs related to personnel and health care. Salaries and pensions alone accounted for one-fifth of the total  $8 billion in prison spending in 2015, and health care for an aging prison population (the number of incarcerated individuals 55 and older more than doubled between 2010 and 2013) is swallowing ever-larger amounts of state prison budgets.

States such as California, Colorado and Pennsylvania—which have changed sentencing codes and established other policies aimed at reducing prison populations and providing alternatives to prison—registered some of the highest  spending  increases.

Nevertheless, the authors of the Vera  study said that lowering prison populations was essential to reforming a system that, with some 1.4 million people behind bars at its peak in 2009, leads the world in incarceration rates. (The number of prisoners has declined by about five per cent since then.)

They noted that in 13 states where prison populations dropped since 2010—including New York, Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey— prisons costs declined by a whopping $1.6 billion, without a corresponding danger to public safety. In fact, crime rates reduced by double-digit figures in some of those states.

“While simultaneously downsizing prison populations and spending is easier said than done, these 13 states prove that it is indeed possible,” wrote Christian Henrichson, Research Director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, in his introduction to the report.

“For those who are up to the challenge, this report makes it plain that a large sum of money is on the table.”

The report poses a sharp counterweight to the philosophy espoused by the Trump administration that reforming sentencing guidelines and other efforts to reduce prison populations over the past several years have generated new crime dangers to the nation.

But it also makes clear that the dollars-and-cents argument for cutting prison populations taken by some reformers has limitations. The survey found, for example, that in seven states where prison populations increased between 2010 and 2015, costs still declined by $254 million—largely because of reductions in staffing and budgetary constraints on improving facilities.

The Vera study was prepared by Chris Mai and Ram Subramanian.

A full version is available here.