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Prison suicides raise questions about mental illness of inmates

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The Ohio Department of Rehabilitations and Corrections is hiring a national expert to examine the mental health of inmates after convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro killed himself with a bed sheet after serving one month of his 1000 year life sentence.

Since 2000, 88 inmates in Ohio have committed suicide. Ten of those suicides happened this year. Although this is still lower than the national average, Dr. Lindsay M. Hayes was hired by Gary Mohr, director of the ODRC, to examine the mental health of the inmates.

Hayes, who is the project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Mansfield, Mass., charges about $168.75 an hour, plus travel expenses. He will cost the department about $13,125. Hayes has said that he “cares about everyone we have responsibility for, no matter what they’ve done.”

Although Hayes is intending to focus his efforts on the mentally ill, inmate suicides don’t just affect the mentally ill. Suicides happen in both high and low-security prisons. They even happen in reception facilities where the prisoners first enter the prison system. A commonality with most suicides is they almost always involve white men.

But the focus is less on the statistics of inmate suicides and more on why this is happening in the first place. Billy Slagle, an inmate on death row, committed suicide on Aug. 4 after spending 15 years in prison. According to a report, Clay Putnam, a 19-year-old corrections officer, falsified a log suggesting that he went to check on the inmates when he clearly didn’t.

Furthermore, two prison guards who have worked in the system for about six years are on suspended leave after Ariel Castro’s suicide on Sept. 3.

Earlier this month, a lesser known inmate named James Blackburn, 31, was serving a 21-year sentence after being convicted of raping his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son. He was found dead earlier this month. Two more corrections officers are on paid leave while the ODRC conducts its investigation.

The union that represents Ohio’s 3,600 inmates suggests, however, that the ODRC should focus less on the mental health of the inmates and more about the overcrowding of the prisons themselves. The department said in a statement that they will be including an in-depth investigation of their policies and procedures so that they can determine any improvements that need to be made.

According to the ODRC website, corrections officers have to go through over 100 hours of various training.

The question still lingers: is it fair to blame Ohio inmates suicides on the prisoner’s mental health or are the correction officers who are supposed to be watching over them to blame?

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