An ongoing series on the state of mental health and access to treatment in rural Oklahoma. The project is enabled by a grant from the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation.

Most were in their late 20s or early 30s. All were in a type of isolated confinement, with 23-hour lockdown and one hour alone in an outdoor recreation yard or an underground concrete bunker.

All died by hanging themselves.

Between 2012 and 2015, nine inmates in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester took their own lives, giving Oklahoma’s only state-owned maximum security prison the highest suicide rate among corrections facilities. Its rate was six times that of the prison with the second highest rate, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

During those four years, a total of 25 inmates committed suicide, and those in McAlester represented 35 percent of them, although the prison housed about 3 percent of the state’s inmate population.

The two prisons with the next highest number – Lexington Assessment and Reception Center and the privately owned Lawton Correctional Facility – reported three suicides each during those years.

Causes have not been determined in all deaths in Oklahoma prisons in 2016, although one of four deaths ruled a suicide occurred at the penitentiary.

Unsuccessful suicide attempts also occur, but the Corrections Department doesn’t keep precise numbers.

The suicides at Oklahoma’s oldest prison have alarmed corrections officials and prisoner advocates, triggering changes in some policies.

Lynn Powell, president of OK CURE, an inmate advocacy group, said the trend may be due to isolation of inmates from human contact as well as inadequate medical care.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the 24-hour-a-day lockdown, where they don’t have yard time,” Powell said. “There’s less chance for contact. You’re stuck in one spot.”

The McAlester prison also is home to mostly long-term and violent offenders, as well as death-row inmates, and has a large number of offenders with mental illness.

Dr. Jana Morgan, chief mental health officer for the Corrections Department, likewise pointed to isolation as a possible driver of higher suicide rates. Scientific studies have found that prisoners subjected to long-term isolated confinement are more likely to engage in self-harm.

“As people are locked down more and in maximum security settings, the risk goes up,” Morgan said.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Terri Watkins said the department works hard to prevent prisoner suicide, but prevention can be difficult.

“We have monitoring that goes on, treatment that goes on, to try and prevent that from happening,” Watkins said. “It’s our ultimate goal for that never to happen. Sadly, it does.”

Prisoner advocates question whether enough is being done.

Read: McAlester News-Capital Series on the Penitentiary
An inmate who suffered a mental health episode is escorted to the infirmary by corrections officers at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Photo by Kevin Harvison.
An inmate who suffered a mental health episode is escorted to the infirmary by corrections officers at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Photo by Kevin Harvison. Credit: Kevin Harvison / McAlester News-Capital

Grim Surroundings

Most inmates in the prison system are in the “general population,” meaning they share a cell or larger dormitory-style room and eat meals and exercise among other inmates.

Hundreds, however, are kept in one of three types of segregation: protective custody, which involves separation because of risk of being harmed; disciplinary detention, imposed as punishment for misconduct; or administrative segregation, the most restrictive form of housing in a maximum-security setting.

Administrative segregation can be short term, in which inmates are awaiting a pending investigation, a hearing or transport or those under medical or psychological observation, or long-term, which can last months or years and is for offenders classified as behavioral or security risks.

The penitentiary is the only male prison facility approved for long-term administrative segregation. Women in that category are placed in Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud.

Administrative segregation is imposed when “the offender in the general population poses a threat to life, property, staff, self, other offenders or to the security or orderly operation of the correctional facility,” department policy states.

The condition of the McAlester prison can heighten a sense of despair. There are deteriorating structures, shuttered wings, dank rooms, peeling paint and intense cold or heat.

Prisoners are kept in a small cell alone or with a cellmate for 23 consecutive hours. Those in administrative segregation are given one hour, with guards only, in the dim underground bunker, for exercise up to five days a week. On weekends, they remain locked up 24 hours a day.

There is relatively little difference between life in solitary confinement and life in the general population. In the latter, prisoners are still locked up 23 hours a day, with an hour for exercise with other inmates in an outdoor fenced-in area called “the kennel.”

Isolation as a Norm

In 2012, a Virginia consulting firm, CNA, examined administrative segregation practices at the penitentiary and the following year issued a report and recommendations.

The study found that the prison was unique because inmates in both the general population and administrative segregation had similar restrictions, privileges and security.

“In virtually all of the other systems that the project team has reviewed (nationally), there were specific, graduated differences between these two distinct classification levels,” the report said. “Those differences are not readily apparent at OSP.”

Of the 142 inmates in segregation, only five were released into the general population in 2012. Many more were identified for release but not moved, either within the prison or to other facilities, largely because of a lack of acceptable bed space, the report said.

The average prisoner in McAlester had been in secure confinement for more than four years, despite the fact that about half the inmates had no major misconducts during the previous 12 months, the study found.

The report also found that 57 percent of inmates in long-term segregation were taking psychotropic medications or had some degree of mental illness. That compared with 36 percent of all inmates in the corrections system.

Easing Back on Segregation

Morgan, the chief mental health officer, said the department has regularly reviewed policies and protocols to prevent and respond to suicides. All department employees have at least some level of training to spot warning signs and respond, she said.

“We’re not significantly higher than the national average (prisoner suicide rate), but that doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously. My goal is zero.”

Other inmates are encouraged to speak up if they see another prisoner exhibiting suicidal tendencies.

“We try to come at it at all angles,” Morgan said.

In 2015, then-Corrections Director Robert Patton began a pilot “step-down” program at the penitentiary based on one of CNA’s recommendations: Gradually shift inmates out of administrative segregation based on good behavior, allowing them more time outside of their cells.

At the time, Patton told the Associated Press nearly 1,200 Oklahoma inmates were under a 23-hour-a-day restrictive housing status. More than half those inmates were housed at McAlester.

The step-down program at the prison began with 10 inmates, and as of mid-January had 55 participants, said Watkins, the department’s spokeswoman.

The program was implemented to better manage offenders, but a side effect could be preventing suicides, Morgan said. “Ideally, that’s going to help a little bit,” she said.

One of the department’s goals for the coming year is to fully implement the step-down program at the penitentiary., according to Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposed budget documents.

Most Return to Society

Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, said although many inmates in the prison have a cellmate, they still suffer from spending 23 hours a day in a cell.

“You’ve got people who are essentially in this concrete vault and they don’t get out,” Henderson said. “…It’s just that inability to go anywhere, to move around, to have any change in your immediate surroundings.”

Henderson said an issue that often comes up in discussions with attorneys representing death-row inmates, who are held at the penitentiary, is how severe the effects of long-term isolation can be.

“When you do it to someone – deprive them of basic human interaction, which is something everybody needs – in periods of months or years versus days or a couple of weeks, you’re doing something that changes their psyche and degrades it,” Henderson said. “One of the expressions I hear is that it turns people’s brains into tapioca. Very often you’ve got people who by the time they’re executed, can barely function.”

Henderson said while it may be hard to feel sympathy for high-risk prisoners in the penitentiary, people should remember that most offenders will eventually leave prison, and that mental-health problems and suicides, worsened by long-term isolation, will cost taxpayers money.

“Even if somebody says I don’t care one bit about the mind or life or soul of that particular inmate, I bet as a taxpayer I’m going to care about the bill I’m going to have to pay when they have to take that inmate to a hospital after a suicide attempt,” Henderson said.

“There are a lot of reasons to care very much because of the impact on the state and community itself that go way beyond the individual inmate who is affected.”

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