The state improved mental health care behind bars after a high-profile inmate suicide in 1996. Ex-football star Aaron Hernandez’ death yesterday focused attention on the fact that the Massachusetts inmate suicide rate is on the of the nation’s highest.
Twenty years ago, a high-profile inmate suicide in Massachusetts made national news and prompted calls for reform. In the two decades since, the state has made strides to improve mental health care and deter suicides in prison, but the rate of self-inflicted inmate deaths in the state remains among the highest in the U.S., the Boston Globe reports. Yesterday’s death of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez marked the 65th reported suicide in the state’s prisons since John C. Salvi III was found beneath his cot in in 1996, a plastic trash-can liner secured around his head. He had been convicted of opening fire inside two abortion clinics, killing two and wounding five others.
After Salvi’s high-profile death, the state made cell-design improvements and conducted more frequent screenings of inmates, even those not considered to be a suicide risk, such as Hernandez. Investments in “suicide resistant” design have focused primarily on housing for inmates already identified as suicidal or placed on mental-health watch, not those in general population cells. Hernandez’s reported method — hanging himself by a sheet secured from a window, apparently just a few feet off the ground — appeared to match a previous inmate suicide at the same prison in 2005. “I’m not sure how that happened or how that could happen, but . . . it’s not the first time,” said James Pingeon of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a longtime advocate for poor and mentally ill inmates. Even design changes to make prison suicide far more difficult may not prevent them, he said. “People tend to find a way.”