Illustration by Dola Sun
Nine state prisoners killed themselves in 2016, three of whom lived in the solitary units I’ve been known to call home. This is one of their stories.
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
Last month, a federal judge found the mental health care provided to prisoners in the Alabama Department of Corrections "horrendously inadequate." In his 302-page ruling, US District Court Judge Myron Thompson was both indignant and heartbroken as he described a mental health system that fails vulnerable inmates at every turn.
The suicide rate within Alabama prisons has more than doubled in the last two years. Overcrowding and understaffing are at crisis levels statewide, and many prisons are "incredibly dangerous and out of control," Thompson found. Instability and fear of violence are especially stressful for the mentally ill, who are often punished for displaying symptoms of their disease with stints in solitary confinement, further deteriorating their mental health.
Of the nine state prisoners who killed themselves in 2016, three were housed in the solitary units at Holman Correctional Facility in the southwestern Alabama town of Atmore. One of them was Robert DeAngelo Carter, 26, who hanged himself on October 9. Here, a friend who is also incarcerated in solitary at Holman remembers him. Speaking from his cell on a contraband cell phone, he asked us to withhold his name for fear of retribution by prison officials.
We called him Tyson. He was a short kid. Very good looking. And he was kind of like a child. He was very soft-spoken. We knew he suffered from a mental illness. You can just tell when a person’s not normal. He was like our nephew—like a child that needed to be fostered. Sometimes he would stray around. We would have to make him go to his dorm. He was very naïve.
The only thing I ever saw Tyson do: He would challenge people to a fight. Not out of malice, but he just felt like boxing on some days. So that’s how he was. I was like, "Tyson, what’s wrong with you?" "Nothing, uncle, I just feel like I want to fight today." Other than that, he didn’t curse. He was honest, like a 10 year old. You could tell him what to do, and he would do it.
In this prison, we realize the mentally ill have to be taken care of. They are not preyed upon by inmates at this facility. If we know a person suffers from a mental illness, and he smokes cigarettes, we try to make sure he doesn’t walk around picking cigarettes up off the ground. If they don’t bathe, we make sure they bathe and change their clothes.
I was already here in solitary when Tyson arrived. He had been to solitary a few times in the past. Every violation in Holman, you go to solitary, regardless of what it is. If something happens with a person who is mentally ill, they receive the same disciplinary infractions, and get placed in solitary confinement just like a normal person would.
We are supposed to have some reprieve from being in solitary, at least 45 minutes a day, five days a week. We don’t get that here. We probably go on a walk 10 times a year. Out of 30 days, we are in our cells for 28 days, sometimes consecutively, without even going out to exercise or just to feel the sun on our backs. Some guys have been back here for years. This is what was going on when we had a record number of suicides at this prison.
When you’re in solitary confinement, there is no monitoring. The officers don’t come check on you every hour or every 2-3 hours. The only time you see officers is when they’re taking someone to the infirmary, or bringing you meals.
We have intercom buttons in our cells, but none of them work—they’ve been disconnected. So if there’s something wrong with me—if I have a heart attack, or a stroke, or whatever—there is no way for me to relay my distress to the COs, and they are not coming back here. This is very much like being placed in a dungeon. Inmates kick on doors, or yell that there’s a man down, or they have to start fires, or flood the tiers.
VICE’s James Burns voluntarily spent 30 days in solitary in an American jail.
That day, Tyson was yelling and screaming it: "I’m gonna kill myself, I’m gonna kill myself. I want to see mental health. I want to see somebody."
Two hours later, one of the trusties [an inmate who is considered trustworthy and has special privileges] went to his door and found him hanging.
The trusty yelled it out, "He’s in here hanging." He ran and got some officers, pulled him down, put him in a body bag and wheeled him out.
Tyson wasn’t the only one.
In the last year, three inmates took their own lives. No inmate killed another inmate at this prison in 2016. All of them took their own lives. Every death we had here, inmates killed themselves.
When you’re placed in a cell for so long with no mental stimulation, it’s going to have an effect on anybody.
In an emailed statement, Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton responded to these allegations. Inmates placed in solitary confinement at Holman are allowed to exercise outside of their cells for one hour, five times a week if they do not "pose a high-risk threat and adequate security is available to supervise" them, he wrote. Inmates are placed in segregation based on violent behavior and risk to others, not for every disciplinary infraction, according to Horton. Certain inmates with mental health diagnoses are restricted from solitary under ADOC protocol; if an inmate with a mental illness commits a disciplinary infraction "that may require restrictive housing," a health care professional will assess the inmate to determine if it should be waived, Horton said. He added that Holman inmates have damaged some of the emergency alert systems inside cells in the solitary unit, where a "refurbishing project" is underway, but that officers conduct visual checks around the clock and are trained to respond to emergencies.
Judge Thompson’s findings, however, indicate that ADOC’s ability to implement its stated protocols—on everything from providing adequate outdoor time to evaluating whether an inmate is mentally ill—is compromised by severe staffing shortages. As he wrote, "ADOC does not have a meaningful mechanism that prevents mentally ill prisoners from being placed in segregation for lengthy periods of time."
If you are feeling suicidal, visit the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call toll free 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time. A listing of similar helplines in other countries can be found here.