Its review of state records has led the Salem Statesman Guard to conclude that Isolation may be a major factor in the suicides that have plagued the Oregon prison system in recent years, giving it a suicide rate nearly twice the national average. Since August 1998, 25 inmates have killed themselves, the paper reports. Fifteen had known psychiatric problems, ranging from chronic mental illnesses to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. At least 14 killed themselves in the Disciplinary Segregation Unit or the Intensive Management Unit where inmates are confined to their cells for at least 23 hours per day.
Family members of inmates, attorneys and other inmate advocates say the death toll shows why prisoners with mental-health problems shouldn’t be placed in extreme isolation for violating prison rules. “Prisons respond to disciplinary issues by segregating people. If a person has a psychotic disorder, that may be the worst thing to do with him,” said Robert Joondeph, the executive director of the Oregon Advocacy Center, which has represented inmates in civil rights lawsuits.