Rash of suicides alarms Philadelphia prison officials

Louis Giorla, commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System
Louis Giorla, commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2012

Three suicides and one attempted suicide by Philadelphia prison inmates since Wednesday has prompted the corrections system to take stepped-up preventive measures, officials said.

A 25-year-old man was found hanging from an air vent in his cell at the Detention Center in an apparent suicide Friday afternoon. A second man at the Detention Center survived an attempted suicide Friday and was taken to a hospital.

On Wednesday, a 23-year-old man died by suicide at the Detention Center, and a 24-year-old man committed suicide at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. Both deaths were by hanging.

"That is a very disturbing, very high number," said civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky, who has for decades taken the city to federal court over prison conditions.

Rudovsky said he would request the records of the four inmates. If the cases appeared to be related to poor conditions for the inmates, Rudovsky said, he would "consider going back to court" against the city.

Louis Giorla, commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System, said in a statement the three deaths did not appear related. The cases are being investigated by the prison system and by Philadelphia police.

Giorla said "all corrections officers and support staff are being directed to be extra vigilant in their observation of and interactions with inmates."

"All inmates housed in the affected areas are being seen by behavioral health staff to assess their current mental state," Giorla said.

He also said a regularly scheduled review by an independent prisons monitor of behavioral health services, set to begin Monday, would be devoted solely to the suicides.

Prison overcrowding has become a serious problem again. The prison system's total inmate population as of Friday was 8,727. It had dropped to 7,800 about 15 months ago, Rudovsky said.

Lawyers representing inmates say the spike in population comes as the number of prison staff has decreased, requiring more lockdowns to manage prisoners.

The lawyers also say medical care is lacking, especially for inmates with mental-health issues.

The Detention Center has no air-conditioning for inmates or the staffers who oversee them.

Contact Robert Moran at 215-854-5983, bmoran@phillynews.com, or follow @RobertMoran215 on Twitter.

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