Texas prison suicide rate high among inmates in isolation



By the time Casey Myers died at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s McConnell Unit, south of San Antonio, he’d already spent the majority of his life locked up. Ordered into the then-Texas Youth Commission on a 30-year sentence when he was in the eighth grade for killing a 12-year-old boy he lived with, Myers became an adult prisoner three years later at the age of 17.

He never got out. On March 22, 2011, the 30-year-old Myers was discovered hanging in his prison cell. For the previous eight months, he had been assigned to administrative segregation, where inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells.

Prison policy calls for guards to check on administrative segregation prisoners at least every 30 minutes. Records show Myers had hung a blanket over the window in his cell door so guards couldn’t see in, a blatant rules infraction. By the time correctional officers cut him down, records show, Myers’ body had stiffened into rigor mortis, a process that takes up to four hours.

Myers was one of two dozen state inmates who killed themselves in 2011. An American-Statesman analysis has determined that 11, or just under half of those prisoners, died despite a policy requiring intensive surveillance in administrative segregation, a maximum custody status for inmates judged to be especially dangerous, disruptive or escape risks.

Between 2007 and 2012, the 8,000 to 9,000 state prisoners housed in administrative segregation made up between 5 and 6 percent of the total prison system census. Yet in a given year, the analysis shows, their suicides have accounted for as high as 40 percent of the self-inflicted deaths. Some years, the rate of suicide among administrative segregation inmates is more than 10 times that of the general prison population. It has climbed incrementally in recent years.

Most Texans are unlikely to shed many tears over criminals who decide to end their own lives, particularly those convicted of serious offenses. Yet deaths like Myers’ raise questions about how well the state is attending to its duty to care for its inmates.

The deaths also add to the debate over confining mentally ill inmates for long periods in relative isolation. About a quarter of Texas inmates held in administrative segregation have a diagnosis of mental illness or mental retardation.

That isn’t dramatically disproportionate from the overall prison population. Yet experts say evidence suggests that, more than in the general population, prolonged periods of isolation can worsen psychiatric symptoms in some and initiate them in others. Of the 56 Texas inmates who killed themselves in administrative segregation cells between 2007 and 2012, 28 — exactly half — had a mental health diagnosis.

Administrative segregation is defined as “maximum custody status … for the purpose of maintaining safety, security and order among general population offenders and correctional officers.” Unlike solitary confinement, in which an offender is punished for infractions by being isolated for a defined period of time, administrative segregation is open-ended, and offenders are reviewed periodically for release back into the general prison population.

Such inmates typically spend 23 hours a day in their 6-by-10-foot single cells. (Some of the cells are as small as 5-by-9.) Most administrative segregation residents are inmates the agency has identified as gang members — “security threat group members,” in prison lingo — who can work their way off the restrictive supervision through a nine-month gang-renunciation program. About 550 offenders are currently enrolled.

Officials say the average length of stay in maximum custody is just over three years, but a significant number of prisoners remain there for considerably longer. Late last year, when the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy asked the agency for a list of long-serving administrative segregation residents, it received a spreadsheet showing that at least 100 inmates had been on the restricted status for more than 21 years. One is approaching 28 years.

Deadly lapses

According to the Statesman’s analysis, more than a third of the prisoners who have killed themselves in Texas prisons since 2007 were under maximum supervision in administrative segregation. Studies of some other prison systems have found comparable numbers.

Lindsay Hayes, a Massachusetts-based nationally recognized expert on prison and jail suicides, said research has shown offenders often kill themselves soon after being moved to administrative segregation because of the shock of the changes to their routine. But among the 11 Texas inmates who killed themselves in administrative segregation the same year as Casey Myers, the time they’d spent in the restricted status varied widely.

Jamon Jenkins, 30, sentenced to life for sexually assaulting children in Midland County, had been there barely six weeks before he hanged himself. Benito Ybarbo, 40, who also hanged himself, had been an administrative segregation resident for 13½ years — nearly since his incarceration began in 1997. He was serving a 30-year sentence from a Travis County aggravated assault case.

“You would expect in housing areas with a greater level of supervision there would be a lower incidence of problems, including inmate suicide,” Hayes said. Staggering cell checks, so inmates don’t know when to expect a guard to look in, as well as regular psychological evaluations to identify suicidal inmates, can offer some prevention. Hayes said even intensive supervision cannot always prevent a prisoner committed to killing himself from completing the job.

Yet there have also been deadly lapses in supervision in the Texas prison system. In October 2006, Texas inmate Michael Johnson killed himself while in administrative segregation. And not just any administrative segregation: Johnson was on death row, awaiting execution for the 1995 murder of a gas station employee outside of Waco.

Guards were to look in on him every 15 minutes. Johnson, who cut his throat, nevertheless had time to scrawl a note in his own blood on his cell wall before his body was discovered, recalled A.P. Merillat, an investigator with the Special Prosecution Unit, an independent agency that investigates and prosecutes prison crimes. Just before his death, “he also wrote letters telling how he’d been partying all day with other death row inmates prior to his death, passing a (marijuana) pipe back and forth,” Merillat added.

Johnson was one of seven death row inmates who have managed to kill themselves at the Polunsky Unit since 2004, despite the hyperintensive supervision. That’s more than the five Texas death row suicides that occurred in the previous 30 years. Last July, Selwyn Davis, sentenced to death for killing his ex-girlfriend’s mother in Austin in 2007, overdosed on pills he’d secretly hoarded.

In 2009, the corrections department agreed to pay an $85,000 settlement to the mother of a prisoner who killed himself at the William Clements Unit, north of Amarillo. Legal documents filed in the federal case show Theodore Schmerber, 29 years old, mentally ill and incarcerated for more than a decade on a murder conviction, was clearly suicidal; guards were ordered to check on his isolation cell every 15 minutes.

After he hanged himself, officers insisted they had performed all the required checks. But a subsequent investigation revealed they hadn’t, and had falsified prison records, according to court records.

“They simply abandoned a seriously ill inmate in crisis who was known to be in need of frequent observation,” a testifying expert wrote. One of the guards received six months of disciplinary probation; another quit, according to the documents.

After Christopher Brockman — diagnosed as bipolar — hanged himself in 2006 while being held in isolation in the state’s Michael Unit, his mother sued the corrections department, claiming his death was preventable. The suit, which her lawyer said was dismissed because it was filed too late, contended that “when Christopher’s body was found, blood had already begun to pool in his lower body, indicating a fair amount of time had passed since his suicide.”

“I chuckle when I hear the words ‘intensive supervision,’” said his mother, Cynthia Brockman. “They didn’t protect him, and he couldn’t protect himself.”

Lance Lowry, president of the Huntsville-based local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state correctional officers, said he wasn’t surprised that guards didn’t always complete required cell checks. He said working on administrative segregation units was one of the most stressful assignments in corrections, often exacerbated by chronic short-staffing.

Between all the checking, the escorting of prisoners and regular cell searches mandated by policy, “the work is nonstop,” he said. “They’re tasked with doing an almost impossible job. They’re literally having to run to get things done.”

Corrections department spokesman Jason Clark acknowledged the agency struggles with guard recruitment and retention, particularly in prison units located near booming gas fields, where the state’s starting salary of $28,000 compares poorly. But he said critical positions, which include administrative segregation supervision, are always appropriately staffed, even if it means lowering a unit’s offender population or temporarily curtailing staff-intensive activities such as supervising inmate recreation.

Hands and feet bound

Based on news accounts from 1994, Casey Myers was the only real suspect from the moment the 12-year-old boy was discovered shot to death in his bed in Sunnyvale, a town of 5,000 about a 20-minute drive east of Dallas. Myers called 911 and claimed an intruder had shot the boy, but he soon confessed to the crime after police discovered a rifle hidden near the house.

“He appeared to be a very cold individual for being 14 years old,” a sheriff’s deputy said at the time. Police described him as having “emotional problems.” (His parents, who have since moved to a remote ranching community in West Texas, didn’t respond to requests for an interview.) In May 1995, four months before his 15th birthday, Myers was sentenced to 30 years and sent to the Texas Youth Commission, now called the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

It’s unclear why Myers was assigned to administrative segregation on June 5, 2010; inmate disciplinary records are considered confidential. Nine months later, his body was discovered at 3:55 a.m. after a corrections officer delivering breakfast opened the slot through which prisoners receive their food and heard no response. When she removed the forbidden blanket hanging in front of his window, she noted him in a sitting position with a noose around his neck.

Moving Myers was difficult because of his body’s stiffness. The first medical staff on scene, nurse Teresa Ann Burris, didn’t attempt resuscitation because he was cold to the touch. The responding ambulance crew report confirmed Myers was in “full rigor mortis.”

The medics also reported his “hands were tied behind his back. Feet were tied” with clothesline, as well. In court documents, Burris, who didn’t respond to interview requests, said Myers’s death initially appeared to be a homicide. Clark said an Office of Inspector General review concluded Myers had killed himself, and that it isn’t unheard of for inmates to bind themselves prior to hanging to ensure their success. The inspector general has refused to release the report on Myers.

Clark said one guard assigned to check on Myers was fired. Another chose to resign in lieu of facing discipline, and a captain was demoted. The state Board of Nursing moved to revoke Burris’s license because of her refusal to perform CPR, but two months ago the agency dropped the case without comment.



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