Georgia’s prisons face troubling rise in suicides. What are officials doing about it?

In December 2017, Sheba Maree received a troubling letter from her son, Caleb, in which he threatened to end his life.

Her son was “smart, loving, and helpful,” Maree told The Telegraph. But because he had a history of self-harming behavior, and he was incarcerated, she grew concerned for his safety. When she called Valdosta State Prison, an employee assured Maree that Caleb was already on suicide watch.

Two days later, Caleb allegedly informed a correctional officer he intended to commit suicide. Instead of staying with Caleb, the guard left to tell additional staffers about the suicide threat. By the time he returned, Caleb had hung himself.

According to a lawsuit filed in March 2019 against Valdosta State Prison, Maree alleges, “there was an unreasonable delay” in finding scissors to get her son down. Doctors placed Mitchell on life support. He died two days later.

The prison staff “owed a duty to protect Caleb from a known risk of serious harm while in their custody,” Maree’s lawsuit alleges. “But they failed to perform that duty.”

As the U.S. grapples with rising suicide rates, few places bear the brunt of that mental health crisis more than state prisons. Few correctional systems have struggled as much as Georgia’s, which has experienced a rate spike so large that it now ranks among the nation’s highest.

A three-month investigation by The Telegraph further highlights the state’s struggles. Between 2014 and 2016, state records show that 20 state prisoners had taken their own lives. In the nearly three years since, 46 prison deaths were deemed suicides. Georgia’s prison suicide rate — at 35 suicides per 100,000 — is nearly double the national average.

The suicide rate for the U.S. population is 13 suicide per 100,000.

High rates in prisons south of Macon

The Telegraph also found nearly half of state prison suicides since 2014 have occurred at six facilities south of Macon, even though those correctional facilities can hold only a fifth of Georgia’s overall prison population.

In the past three years, Valdosta State Prison accounted for nearly 20% of all suicides despite having space to hold less than 3% of the state’s prison population.

Four prisons with some of Georgia’s highest suicide counts over that period are located within 100 miles of Macon.

In response to a rise in prisoners facing mental health needs, Georgia Department of Corrections officials say they have hired more psychiatrists, along with a psychologist devoted to suicide prevention.

They say staff training has raised awareness about suicide, teaching officers how to respond to someone at risk. A corrections department spokesperson says incarcerated individuals are encouraged to call a toll-free suicide hotline — even though some are placed in solitary confinement.

But advocates argue those efforts are modest compared to what’s actually needed to lower the number of suicides in Georgia prisons.

Family members say they’re often kept in the dark about the details of their relatives’ final moments.

Mike Phillips, a current Valdosta State Prison inmate, believes the suicide spike is caused by “a total sense of apathy from the staff about everything and anything.”

America’s state prisons saw fewer suicides between 1980 and 2010. But in recent years, as correctional facilities found themselves on the front lines of America’s opioid and mental health epidemics, that progress was erased.

Between 2013 and 2014 alone, U.S. state prison suicide rates rose by nearly a third. And Southern states including Georgia, Alabama and Texas saw even larger increases in their rates.

Georgia correctional officials believe one in five people incarcerated in state prisons have a documented mental health need.

To keep pace with the growing demand, corrections department spokesperson Lori Benoit said in a statement that the agency has sought to “equitably distribute” incarcerated individuals with mental health needs at prisons statewide.

She also cited improvements in the department’s mental health efforts such as creating “special mental health treatment units,” hiring a forensic psychologist focused on suicide prevention and expanding its team of psychiatrists.

“Offenders are also provided information on suicide prevention awareness ... upon arrival at each institution,” said Benoit. “They are given access to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.”

Benoit declined to answer other specific questions from The Telegraph.

‘More money, more staff, more resources’

Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm that defends rights of prisoners, says those efforts are an insufficient response to the treatment needs of Georgia’s incarcerated population.

Missing from the corrections department’s response, she says, is a shift away from housing people in segregation and solitary confinement. Some of the individuals who committed suicide, Mitchell included, had spent time in isolation.

Totonchi points to an inspection conducted by Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, regarding the solitary confinement unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, located about 40 miles north of Macon.

During his inspection, some inmates, including ones at risk of suicide, told Haney that they hadn’t seen a mental health counselor for months. In a report, he wrote that the conditions placed the men at “grave risk” of “psychological harm (that) may be irreversible and even fatal.”

Faced with similar problems, officials in other states have attempted more comprehensive reforms. In North Carolina, officials have formed a suicide prevention task force to protect incarcerated individuals.

In Colorado, state corrections officials ended the use of solitary confinement because prisoners locked up that way were more likely to harm themselves.

To improve mental health treatment for Georgia’s state prisoners, Totonchi says Georgia will need “more money, more staff, more resources.”

The corrections department did not respond to further inquiries regarding whether they supported additional mental health reforms.

“From the people in Georgia prisons we talk to, the mental health care is not sufficient,” Totonchi says. “It’s a drop in the bucket for what needs to be provided.”

Details are lacking

The slow reform to Georgia’s state prisons — including at Valdosta State Prison — continues to leave prisons at risk.

Three inmates convicted for crimes in Houston County have committed suicide in the past two years.

The corrections department, for its part, hasn’t always released statements confirming all of its suicides.

Two years ago, Phillips State Prison inmate Osmel Enriquez ended his life after staff missed a mandated 15-minute check on his well being, according to one source with knowledge of the incident.

Following his suicide, corrections officials didn’t issue a statement. (This past spring records obtained by the Telegraph confirmed Enriquez’s death.)

When the department does acknowledge suicides, the agency releases few details — even to family members of the deceased.

In 2018, corrections officials informed Dawn Schmeck that her son, Drew Garlin, had taken his life at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville, 120 miles southeast of Macon.

When she asked for more details about his death, they refused to share them with her. The lack of complete information has left Schmeck with questions about what happened to her son — and what will happen to the inmates still at risk of suicide.

“They won’t tell me,” Schmeck said. “They never gave me details. I hope I can find out all the things they wouldn’t release. I just want to know.”

Suicides in Georgia prisons since 2017

Valdosta State Prison: 9

Georgia State Prison: 6

Hancock State Prison: 3

Phillips State Prison: 4

Baldwin State Prison: 3

Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison: 3

Augusta State Medical Prison: 1

Hays State Prison: 2

Macon State Prison: 2

Ware State Prison: 2

Wilcox State Prison: 2

Atlanta Trans. Center: 1

Bainbridge Probation Substance Abuse Treatment Center: 1

Calhoun State Prison: 1

Central State Prison: 1

Coastal State Prison: 1

Dodge State Prison: 1

Johnson State Prison: 1

Pulaski State Prison: 1

Rogers State Prison: 1

Dooly State prison: 0

Telfair State Prison: 0