The state Department of Corrections is asking outside experts for aid after five inmates in a row killed themselves by hanging inside a Philadelphia-area state prison.
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel recently revealed that the SCI (State Correctional Institution) Graterford, which is set to close this summer, will get examined by a suicide prevention expert.
“Obviously when we have a suicide cluster, it is a major concern,” Corrections Secretary Jon Wetzel said in a statement after the March 28 death of inmate Roland Alston, the fifth suicide in three months. “Although this one likely has a different root cause, it is concerning nonetheless. To that end, we have engaged Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on jail suicide prevention, to quickly lead a full review of all policy, procedures and practices, as well as a full review of each case. We are committed to making whatever adjustments necessary.”
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Wetzel told WHYY that the DOC is taking steps to ensure new Graterford inmates get mental health screenings upon arrival (two of the suicides were recent arrivals), as well as training staff in mental health and suicide prevention. Graterford Superintendent Cynthia Link has also since retired, although DOC did not say if there was any link between the deaths and her departure.
Hayes, based in Massachusetts, is director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives’ Jail Suicide Prevention and Liability Reduction Program, the DOC said.
Alston, 58, was the most recent of the five suicides at Graterford in Montgomery County. Incarcerated since 1984 on a life sentence for first-degree murder charges out of Bucks County, Alston was found "hanging and unresponsive" at 5:30 a.m. inside his prison cell. A doctor from Einstein Medical Center Montgomery "pronounced Alston dead at 6:06 a.m. via telephone," the DOC said.
The other deaths at Graterford spanned the previous several weeks. They include:
On March 3, Jose Rivera, serving five to 10 for aggravated assault in Philadelphia.
On Feb. 17, inmate Isaac DeJesus, 37, serving a three to six-year sentence for indecent assault on a juvenile.
On Feb. 14, Christopher Gilchrist, 31, serving five to 15 years for aggravated assault with bodily injury to an officer charges in Chester County.
On Jan. 20, Arthur Phillips, 68, serving a 10-to-20 year sentence for involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a person less than 16 years of age, out of Chester County.
Gilchrist's family told the Inquirer they heard he was on 24-hour suicide watch at the time he took his life. The DOC has not commented on that rumor.
At the end of June, DOC is planning to open SCI Phoenix, a $400 million prison in Skippack Township with 1,000,000 square feet spread over 30 buildings. Nearly ninety-year-old Graterford will be shuttered and its 2,500 inmates will move to Phoenix at that time.