Suicides of incarcerated people in North Carolina prisons are at their highest in 30 years, reported the Charlotte Observer.
The state Department of Public Safety reported nine suicides in the first nine months. Meanwhile, almost 40% of state correctional officer positions were empty, said officials.
“The department takes this issue seriously and our mental health, medical and security staff make extensive efforts to assist offenders with mental health and self-harm issues,” said spokesperson John Bull.
“This is an alarm. It’s got to be a wakeup call,” said Susan Pollit of the non-profit Disability Rights North Carolina.
One suicide was Didier J. Carias Jr., a 29-year-old with long-standing issues of schizophrenia and paranoia incarcerated at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury. On August 25 he hit an officer and was placed in solitary for punishment.
According to his parents he could not receive visits or make phone calls during this time. After 32 days in prison, he hung himself.
“Being alone for 30 days is a long time. Even a normal person would go crazy … He needed help,” said his mother, Judy Carias.
His father, Didier Carias Sr., had been told by other prisoners of many suicides. Since 2008 there have been eight suicides in Piedmont alone, the Observer reported Oct. 3.
“We wanted to know why they haven’t done anything about it,” the father said.
Of 30,000 incarcerated in North Carolina prisons, about 2,500 are in solitary confinement. During the pandemic, many more prisoners were locked in cells for 23 hours a day to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. This compounded with lack of personnel made mental health issues even worse.
Kerwin Pittman, policy and program director of Durham-based civil rights group Emancipate NC, spoke about extreme effects of isolation, “It just leads to a state of despair and depression. It forces them to stew with the reality that they are in a cage.”
Responses to mental health issues by North Carolina prisons have included a 2017 suicide prevention training program offered to the prison’s behavioral health staff, and formation of a suicide prevention group to study solutions in 2018, according to Bull.
“They simply can’t safely and securely keep as many people in cages as they are now,” said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC.