Pennsylvania Prison Suicides are at an All-Time High – Families Blame ‘Reprehensible’ Mental-Health Care

Roland Alston was despondent.

The Graterford prison lifer, who had been diagnosed with depression and paranoid personality disorder, had thrown out all his photos and legal materials. According to a legal filing, he told mental health staff in March 2018 that he wanted “to give up,” and emphasized that, in the event he took his own life, his family should not blame themselves.

Then, the staff allowed him to return to his cell in general population with no special monitoring, precautions or psychiatric treatment. Two days later, he was dead.

Alston was one of 15 people in state prison to die by suicide that year — a figure that climbed to 19 suicides in 2019, the most in at least 35 years and likely the highest figure in Pennsylvania’s history. That put the state prison suicide rate at 42 deaths per 100,000 people, a figure that’s double the national average, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The families of at least five of those suicide victims, who died in the now-shuttered state prison in Montgomery County in 2017 and 2018, have filed lawsuits in recent months, alleging that the deaths represent systemic failures by the state Department of Corrections and contractors including MHM, a mental health provider, and Correct Care Solutions, a medical provider that according to a 2019 CNN investigation has been sued over more than 70 deaths in the past five years.

The most recent lawsuit, filed Feb. 13, details the events leading to the death of Christopher Gilchrist, a prisoner with diagnosed depression and a long history of suicide attempts who was on constant, one-on-one monitoring in a psychiatric observation cell when he died.

According to the suit, prison staff failed to act on suicidal actions and statements by Gilchrist, who was serving a sentence for aggravated assault and warned staff they should “take everything away” that could be used for self harm. An MHM psychiatrist, despite noting Gilchrist’s suicidal ideation, recommended on the day of his death that he be sent back to general population, according to the lawsuit. And corrections officers, the lawsuit alleges, observed a makeshift noose in his cell more than an hour before his death but did not attempt to remove it.

“This guy was failed by so many people on so many levels. It’s not just one doctor committing malpractice and dropping the ball. It was a systemic failure that went on for days, weeks, months, that led to this ultimate tragedy,” said Todd Schoenhaus, who filed the lawsuit in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court along with Nancy Winkler, of the firm Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck.


BY: Samantha Melamed

PUBLISHED: The Philadelphia Inquirer


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