By Christopher Zoukis
Even though official records for the Arizona prison system show six successful suicides in the most recent fiscal year by inmates, almost 500 other inmates tried to harm or kill themselves, compared with 379 attempts and eight suicides in the same period.
According to the grisly statistics in ‘Inmate Assault, Self-Harm, & Mortality Data’ – an Arizona Department of Corrections report issued in January – the 499 Arizona inmates who attempted self-harm or suicide in the fiscal year ended in November 15, 2015 included 197 who cut, bit or stabbed themselves, 146 who overdosed on authorized or contraband drugs or swallowed razor blades or other objects, 93 who suffered blunt force trauma from throwing themselves down or battering themselves against walls or other hard surfaces, 50 who attempted to hang themselves, and 13 who burned themselves.
The latest report also reveals that, of the total of 888 deaths of Arizona prisoners over the past ten years, 75 have been suicides; there were also 34 homicides and 47 accidental deaths, with the remainder attributed to natural causes.
Clearly, inmate suicide attempts are not just a recent problem for Arizona prisons. A ground-breaking series of in-depth articles in the Arizona Republic in 2012 showed poor or non-existent medical and psychological care that helped create a so-called “second Death Row” for prisoners in the state. It also highlighted careless supervision of prisoners, shoddy record keeping and limited access to what prison and coroner’s records existed.
In the time period examined by the Republic series, assuming the state’s official records were complete (a belief not universally shared), Arizona prisons had a suicide rate 60% above the national average, as drawn from Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers.
In the years following those press disclosures, the Arizona Department of Corrections came under several court orders to do a better job delivering psychiatric services and providing essential services to inmates. A particular focus was on the solitary confinement areas of the state’s prisons (Arizona made higher-than-average use of prisoner isolation); the press probe had also found that most suicides happened in maximum security areas, which housed under 9% of the overall prison population.
Nor is then rash of suicides limited only to state prisons. As recently summarized in Prison Legal News, a Phoenix newspaper reported last month that in the jails of Maricopa County, the state’s largest, since Joe Arpaio became sheriff in 1993, coroner’s records show an astounding 39 of the 157 reported inmate deaths, or almost one-quarter of the total, were attributed to suicide.
The press account further notes that already high percentage could actually be low, since records on inmate deaths are remarkably spotty: no cause was given for 34 deaths, and in 39 other cases, the record merely stated the inmate had died while hospitalized, without explaining why the inmate was in the hospital. The account also notes Maricopa County has paid out over $140 million during Sheriff Arpaio’s tenure to fight and settle claims of brutal or incompetent treatment of inmates.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com