LUDLOW, Mass. (WWLP) - In the last five years the suicide rate in Massachusetts state prisons has more than doubled the national average. In a 2010 National Center on Institutions and Alternatives' study , Lindsay Hayes, a national expert in prison suicide prevention, found suicide as being the leading cause of death in jails around the country. And that in the last 10 years, in Massachusetts, there were 26.9 deaths per 100,000 inmates; almost double the national average. And four times the national average of 16 deaths per 100,000 inmates, in 2006 and 2010.
In 2007, following this spike in prison suicides, Hayes was called in by the state's Department of Corrections to design a plan aimed at preventing suicides within DOC facilities. Because of this alarming trend, The Disability Law Center appealed to the courts for a change in the system. And in a 2007 complaint , the group found that between 2004 and 2007, seven of the 11 prisoners who committed suicide in solitary confinement, suffered from a mental illness. In the suit, the advocate group claims the stark, restrictive conditions of segregation units inside DOC facilities "exceeded the limit of human endurance."
Prison is a place where you leave everything you've ever known. Where the sound of cell doors closing, signal the end of one of our most basic human rights, our freedom. And while the nerve sensor hangs inside each of the hundreds of cells at the Hampden County Correctional Facility, for Sheriff Michael Ashe, being a prisoner in his jail doesn't mean it's the end of the road.
"As I always say to the inmates, anybody can do time, is how you do the time in a way that helps them, if you are willing to give them the tools and direction," said Sheriff Ashe.
Ashe's county jail in Ludlow houses 1800 offenders; more than 15 percent of them suffer from severe mental health issues. It's a demographic that closely mirrors that of state prisons, where 25 percent of inmates are treated for some form of mental illness; a cause for concern for mental health experts who say prisons are becoming the other asylum.
"Ever since the ‘70s when they shut down the institutions, they get segregated and reports over the years stated that, this is not good for somebody with mental health issues," said licensed mental health counselor, Dr. Carl Skeene.
A prisoner in segregation is on lockdown for 23 hours and can't participate in rehabilitative services, conditions The Disability Law Center called "unlawful" and a detriment to the health of inmates.
"When you lock a person up in segregation for 23 hours out of 24-hour-days, we know the pathology and the anger and hostility can, if you will, escalate. We are seeing people with extreme mental health illness, propensities for psychosis and so on and they come here how do you deal with these issues," said Sheriff Ashe.