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Zero in on prison suicides

WHEN CONFRONTED with defects in the state prison system, Correction Department commissioner Kathleen Dennehy is usually quick to accept both responsibility and the recommendations of prison reformers. But a gulf is widening between her enlightened stance and the actual practices of the agency responsible for 11,000 inmates in 17 state facilities.

Last week, the nonprofit Disability Law Center sued the prison system in US District Court seeking to modify the use of long-term solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. Suicides and suicide attempts are escalating, often on the part of prisoners held in cells for as long as 23 hours per day. Since the beginning of 2006, nine inmates have killed themselves, more than five times the national average. Roughly 100 inmates attempted suicide over the same period. The latest suicide occurred March 10 at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. The ink was barely dry on a report citing deficiencies in suicide prevention in the state's prisons.

The lawsuit should get the attention of state officials. The Disability Law Center makes a strong case that some mental illnesses are so profound that sufferers should never be placed in segregation. Currently, prisoners are assessed on a case-by-case basis, usually by a registered nurse. The suit also argues convincingly that mentally ill prisoners in segregation units deserve treatment, training, and recreation each week outside of their cells. A modern prison system with a $467 million operating budget should be able to maintain order without entombing prisoners.

The connection is broken between support for staffing and construction needs, particularly for alternative units for mentally ill prisoners who languish in solitary confinement. Governor Patrick's operating budget proposes a $30 million increase for the prisons. Dennehy says $21 million of that sum will be used to improve medical services for mentally ill prisoners, including those to be served in a proposed 60-bed residential treatment unit. But there are no precise plans or cost estimates for new construction or rehab of existing space for this alternative to segregation. Dennehy says she expects her capital needs to be met in a newly filed bond bill. But the fact that she can't identify where such facilities will be or how much they will cost suggests that the fix is still a long way off. For now, the commissioner is concentrating on the retrofitting of 75 to 100 suicide-resistant cells for emergencies.

Dennehy says she is meeting regularly with her operations, medical, and budget executives to address the unmet needs of mentally ill prisoners. But this is hardly the only demand on her time. The slow pace, high stakes, and legal challenge suggest that she should put a single executive in charge of this life-and-death labor.