It is virtually impossible to know what goes on in prisons in this country unless you are there.
And then there is solitary confinement.
When prisoners complain, guards and administration say they are lying...and the public always believes the prison staff. The only people who don't are activists, families of prisoners, and folks who have been there.
For a number of years now, the Human Rights Coalition has been taking and documenting prisoner statements on abuse and outright torture. In April of this year, it released "Institutionalized Cruelty: Torture at SCI Dallas and in Prisons Throughout Pennsylvania," which alleged that COs routinely abuse SCI Dallas prisoners, and deprive them of "food, water, and other rights"
And the prison system retaliated...against those in its custody.
The group noted in a follow up report released in August,
"Over a period of five days, prison staff subjected seven men to abusive tactics starting with deprivation of food and water, racist slurs, and threats of violence, and culminating in physical assaults with pepper spray, electroshock weapons, fists, and boots. Seven men were beaten bloody and several were left naked in cells without property and in restraints for hours."
These attacks were carried out by European-American guards against prisoners of color and were in reprisal for the prisoners' participation in the recent publication of a report by the Human Rights Coalition/FedUp! (HRC/FedUp!) that documents severe torture and other human rights violations at SCI Dallas. The report, Institutionalized Cruelty2, detailed the findings of a ten-month investigation into SCI Dallas, largely focusing on the solitary confinement unit, and featured testimony from several of the men beaten in the recent attacks."
And that brings us back to the case of Mathew Bullock, a mentally disturbed young man who killed himself, well sort of, at SCI Dallas.
Held in solitary confinement, Bullock, who had a long history of mental illness, psychotic episodes and auditory hallucinations, had tried to kill himself at least 20 documented times in the decade before his 2003 incarceration, and several more times since. Autopsy photos taken after Bullock's suicide showed that his forearms were covered from wrist to bicep with scars, apparently self-inflicted by razors and knives. One scar on his right inner wrist appeared to be recent, with scabs only superficially formed. The scars were both horizontal and vertical. Veins were crossed and traced while cuts intersected and mingled. The number of suicidal cuts in both arms was too high to count.
Prison administration said they had no idea he was suicidal or even depressed.
A law suit filed by his family alleges someone slipped him "instrumentalities which are commonly used to commit or attempt suicide" — a bed sheet, which suicidal inmates in "the hole" are not supposed to have — and COs "incited [Bullock] to 'kill himself.'"
Of course, the state of Pennsylvania claims there is no such thing as solitary confinement in their prisons. What do they mean by this. A spokesperson for The Department of Corrections says, "Solitary confinement is considered where an individual has no contact with other individuals. This is just not the case [in Pennsylvania]." The same spokesman goes on to explain inmate in state prisons' restricted housing units (RHUs) has contact with prison staff and is granted brief outdoor recreation time, where, according to McNaughton, "they may have non-contact interaction with others, including other inmates in the individual exercise pens. ... So, that is why we don't consider it to be 'solitary confinement.' They are housed in our restricted housing units, which are maximum security units within our prisons."
What follows is a fairly lengthy investigative piece on Mathew Bullocks death and related matters published in the Philadelphia Citypaper.
A DEATH IN SOLITARY
Hell is the hole in a prison near Wilkes-Barre
by Matt Stroud
August 14, 2010
When Matthew Bullock, a 32-year-old convicted killer, fashioned a noose from a bed sheet that he wasn't supposed to have, secured it around his neck, tied it to thin steel bars in the face-high window of his solitary confinement cell, then sat down hard in an effort to break his neck and suffocate himself, it wasn't the first time he'd attempted suicide. In fact, according to a civil lawsuit filed in November 2009 by Bullock's parents against officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and officials and state-contracted health care providers at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas (SCI Dallas) — where Bullock's lifeless body was found hanging on Aug. 24, 2009 — Bullock, who had a long history of mental illness, psychotic episodes and auditory hallucinations, had tried to kill himself at least 20 documented times in the decade before his 2003 incarceration, and several more times since. Autopsy photos taken after Bullock's suicide showed that his forearms were covered from wrist to bicep with scars, apparently self-inflicted by razors and knives. One scar on his right inner wrist appeared to be recent, with scabs only superficially formed. The scars were both horizontal and vertical. Veins were crossed and traced while cuts intersected and mingled. The number of suicidal cuts in both arms was too high to count.
Yet Richard Elders, DOC's director of the Bureau of Health Care Services, wrote in a Sept. 2 report obtained by Bullock's parents' attorneys: "Offender Bullock did not give any indications that he was going to harm himself. ... There was no indication noted by staff members who regularly interacted with Offender Bullock that he was depressed and would take his own life."
Bullock's parents say that's simply not true. In their lawsuit, they claim that not only had Bullock tried to kill himself while in custody on multiple occasions, but their son also had repeatedly told SCI Dallas' corrections officers (COs) about his suicidal inclinations. The COs didn't ignore him, according to the lawsuit and written statements provided by fellow inmates: They taunted him — and actually encouraged him to take his own life.
When he told COs of his suicidal tendencies, the lawsuit continues, prison officials moved him from a solitary cell that was within view of an observation camera to one that wasn't. Then, the lawsuit alleges, someone slipped him "instrumentalities which are commonly used to commit or attempt suicide" — a bed sheet, which suicidal inmates in "the hole" are not supposed to have — and COs "incited [Bullock] to 'kill himself.'"
After that, family attorney Shelley Centini says, Bullock was left alone for hours, though DOC policy mandates that inmates in solitary be checked on every 30 minutes.
During that time, Matthew Bullock made good on his death wish.
The Bullocks' lawsuit not only raises the possibility that SCI Dallas COs played a role in Bullock's suicide. It also paints the picture of a prison system that is woefully ill-equipped for handling the mentally ill, and implies that, at least in Bullock's case, it relied on a horrific solitary confinement unit guarded by abusive COs to sequester the insane.
Additionally, according to the lawsuit, DOC health care contractors MHM Services Inc. and PHS Correctional Healthcare had "policies or customs includ[ing] providing the least amount of medical care possible to [SCI Dallas] inmates so that MHM and/or PHS could reap the largest possible profit." (Citing the pending litigation, PHS and MHM declined to comment on the allegations. MHM vice president and general counsel Edwin Hightower points out that because MHM's contract with DOC to provide inmates with mental health care is based on services provided, there's no financial incentive to cut corners.)
After the dosage of Bullock's antipsychotic medications was decreased to dangerous levels, the suit says, Bullock attempted suicide inside SCI Dallas' solitary confinement unit. (Hightower could not comment on the specifics of Bullock's care, other than to say that MHM's psychiatrists prescribe medications as they deem medically necessary.) Bullock was denied food and water, and crammed into a cell with "24-hour light and inoperable ventilation," the lawsuit claims.
These claims of mistreatment mirror those in a report released this spring by a branch of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) called FedUp!, a leftist prisoner-rights organization headquartered in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Titled "Institutionalized Cruelty: Torture at SCI Dallas and in Prisons Throughout Pennsylvania," the report alleges that COs at SCI Dallas physically abuse, assault and deprive inmates of "food, water, and other rights."
Compiled mostly from letters inmates wrote to HRC, the report claims that COs in SCI Dallas' solitary confinement unit — also known as the Restricted Housing Unit, or RHU — sometimes encourage prisoners to commit suicide, and that prison medical staffers regularly deny inmates medications, surgery, hospitalization and other necessary care. It calls mental health care inside SCI Dallas "substandard," and says the system provides "a pretext for holding prisoners in prolonged, sometimes indefinite, solitary confinement."
Bret Grote, an investigator with HRC, says SCI Dallas exemplifies a broken system. "The DOC is constructed to implement abuse ... from the top down," he says. "Bullock's case is just one example of that abuse."
"SHUT HER UP"
Matthew Bullock was no saint. On Jan. 1, 2003, he committed the crime that would land him in prison for the rest of his life: the frenzied strangulation murder of his girlfriend, Lisa Hargrave, and the fetus she carried in her womb. By the time Bullock turned himself in to police, Hargrave's body had been decomposing in the couple's Wilkes-Barre-area apartment closet for nearly a week. Bullock told the cops that he'd blacked out and didn't remember strangling Hargrave.
Prior to 2003, his criminal record was fairly mundane: a burglary charge at 18, a charge of receiving stolen property two years later, an attempted escape from the Luzerne County Correctional Facility two years after that. There was little indication that he would turn into a killer. But there was also little doubt that he was troubled.
At his murder trial, a defense psychiatrist testified that Hargrave's murder was set off by issues stemming not only from Bullock's severe mental illness, but also from more than a decade of drug abuse and the sexual abuse he suffered as a 5-year-old at the hands of his stepbrother and his stepbrother's girlfriend. The psychiatrist testified that they forced Bullock to dress up like a girl, sodomized him and turned him into a sexual plaything.
After these allegations became public, Bullock's stepbrother, Brock Bullock, released a statement calling the allegations "malicious and untrue in all regards."
But Centini, a civil rights attorney for the Dyller Law Firm who represented Bullock at trial and is representing Bullock's family in its civil suit, believes them: That trauma, she says, haunted Bullock his entire life. He began using drugs at 13, and his family began to notice wild mood swings. He attempted suicide. At 15, his family committed him to a mental institution. Over the next decade, he entered in-patient psychiatric hospitalization and in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation more than 20 times. He was diagnosed with impulse control disorder, major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, antisocial personality disorder and traits of borderline personality disorder, as well as alcohol abuse and polysubstance dependence, according to the Bullocks' lawsuit. He also struggled with auditory hallucinations and psychotic episodes — particularly under stress. Then, Centini says, he would hear voices that told him, Go to hell. Go kill yourself.
"They were kind of like command hallucinations," she says. "And then, almost every time that he would hear these voices, the next thing that would happen was a suicide attempt or a drug overdose."
Bullock stabilized on various antipsychotic medications: He held down jobs at Walmart, landscaping companies and at least one telemarketing agency. But like many on antipsychotic medications, he tired of side effects, and opted to self-medicate with alcohol, cocaine and heroin.
Eventually, Centini says, he took up with Lisa Hargrave, a fellow addict. Hargrave marked a new beginning for Bullock. Though he would later lapse, he got clean when they discovered in June 2002 that she was pregnant. Hargrave was still struggling with addiction, Centini says, but Bullock confided in her: Hargrave was the first non-professional person — non-counselor, non-psychiatrist, non-psychologist — Bullock told about the sexual abuse he purportedly suffered when he was 5.
On New Year's Eve 2002, Bullock and Hargrave went to a party where there was an ample supply of cocaine and booze. They both indulged. Early the next morning, Centini says, Hargrave began smoking crack. Bullock asked her to slow down, but she didn't. They went to another party that night — where there was more blow. Hargrave bought more coke before they left. Back at their apartment, she was still at it — snorting lines, smoking rock. Bullock started in on her, Centini says: "This is it. I can't believe you're still using cocaine. It's like hours now. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
After a scuffle, Centini says, Hargrave retorted: "Oh, what are you, the voice of the moral majority? You're gonna yell at me for using cocaine? Who do you think you are? I know who you are. You're a 5-year-old little boy who likes to get dressed up like a little girl. You like to take it in the ass."
And that, Centini says, is when the voices in Bullock's head returned: You know she's right. Shut her up.
He choked her. Bullock later described the scene to his lawyer: "She's still struggling. She's still moving. She's still yelling at me, she's still taunting me, she's still talking. The voices are still telling me these things."
Bullock taped Hargrave's arms. He taped her legs. He taped her mouth shut. And he didn't just tape her mouth shut once; he used the remainder of the duct tape roll and wrapped it around her head more than 30 times. Bullock claimed he had blacked out; at trial, the defense psychiatrist said Bullock had entered a state of psychosis.
Bullock stuffed Hargrave's body in the bedroom closet and went to sleep.
"THE TORTURE CELL"
Of course, this version of events is secondhand: The only two people who were there are no longer alive. But the judge and jury seemed to have some sympathy for Bullock's condition: After hearing Bullock's history at trial, a Luzerne County jury found him "guilty but mentally ill" of third-degree murder in Hargrave's death. (The accompanying fetal homicide conviction was the first in Luzerne County, and one of few in Pennsylvania following the 1997 Crimes Against the Unborn Act.) On Nov. 17, 2003, Common Pleas Judge Joseph Augello sentenced Bullock to 20 to 60 years in prison, with the direction that he "be transferred to a secure mental health facility for the needed period of treatment."
DOC would not discuss Bullock's transfers or mental health treatment for this story; Centini says he was moved from the Luzerne County Correctional Facility — where he was treated with "good medications for the first time" — to SCI Camp Hill, generally thought of, along with SCI Graterford, as one of the most violent and raucous prisons in the state. SCI Camp Hill is part holding pen, part melting pot: It's generally where prisoners go post-conviction, while DOC figures out where to place them.
Of Pennsylvania's 26 state prisons, several contain special needs units for those with mental or physical health care needs, but only one prison is officially designated as a mental health facility: SCI Waymart. According to DOC's website, Waymart houses "mentally disabled male inmates who require inpatient psychiatric care and treatment." (As of June 30, SCI Waymart was one of only five state prisons not over capacity.) Despite the judge's orders that Bullock be placed in a secure mental health facility, Bullock wasn't transferred to SCI Waymart. Instead, he stayed at SCI Camp Hill until sometime in 2004, when he was sent to SCI Huntingdon.
From there, he was transferred to Waymart, where he stayed until early 2005. But then he was transferred back to Huntingdon for more than two years.
About this time, Centini says, DOC stopped providing Bullock with Seroquel, an expensive antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (Citing pending litigation, DOC officials declined to address this claim.)
Centini believes Bullock was transferred from prison to prison because of his multiple suicide attempts.
"The pattern that seems to have developed was that they would put him into general population somewhere, and when he would start to decompensate, they would transfer him to a place that has a special needs unit or a mental health unit," she says. "He would start to show signs of improvement, they would put him back into general population, and the cycle would continue."
Between 2007 and 2009, Centini says, Bullock was transferred to at least five different prisons within DOC. During this time, she adds, DOC's health practitioners would not provide Bullock with Seroquel even when he showed suicidal ideation, which he did frequently: Bullock attempted suicide as many as five times during this span.
Last year, after Bullock's final stay in a DOC mental health facility, he received news that he would be transferred to SCI Dallas. This prospect frightened him: According to his parents' lawsuit, Bullock told prison officials that one of the COs at SCI Dallas was a relative of Lisa Hargrave, his victim.
SCI Dallas officials were aware that one of the COs guarding inmates in the prison's general population was related to Hargrave, Centini says, and at Bullock's request, they twice asked DOC to transfer Bullock.
According to DOC deputy press secretary Sue Bensinger, prison superintendents have absolute discretion to reject prisoners' transfer applications before passing them along to DOC. That Michael Klopotoski, SCI Dallas' then-superintendent, sent Bullock's two transfer requests to DOC brass may indicate that he felt Bullock's concern was at least somewhat legitimate.
However, Centini says, citing DOC Office of Professional Responsibility records she obtained in discovery — but declined to release to City Paper — in SCI Dallas officials' first attempt to transfer Bullock, they forgot to include the name of the CO allegedly related to Hargrave, so DOC declined the transfer. The second request was turned down due to Bullock's "misbehavior" — "scratching his arm with a staple," Centini says. (Because his name is not included in the lawsuit, his relationship with Hargrave could not be independently verified and he could not be reached for comment by press time, City Paper is not identifying that CO.)
After Bullock requested the transfer, Centini says, SCI Dallas officials moved him into administrative custody in the prison's RHU while DOC processed his petitions.
Here, Centini says, Bullock started hearing voices again. He scratched his wrist with a staple he found — which, Centini says, prompted DOC to deny his second transfer request. SCI Dallas officials then placed Bullock in disciplinary custody — in a cell Centini calls the "torture cell," which she says was outfitted with 24-hour lighting and no amenities except a tiny desk and a hunk of concrete to sleep on. Centini calls this transition "a punishment" handed to Bullock for again attempting suicide.
"TREATED LIKE ANIMALS"
"Institutionalized Cruelty," the Human Rights Coalition's 93-page report released this spring, details numerous allegations of inhumane, unsafe and vicious treatment inside SCI Dallas' RHU at the hands of COs the report describes as some of the most abusive in the system. Walberto Maldonado, of Philadelphia, is serving five to 10 years in SCI Dallas for drug-dealing charges he incurred in 2003. Last September, he wrote to HRC to protest the conditions inside solitary confinement, which, he said, "has become a chamber of cruel and unusual punishment ... a torture camp." The hole resembles "a cattle ranch where people are tortured ... then released back to society without a chance in the world due to being treated like animals."
Wrote another RHU inmate, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by SCI Dallas COs: "The conditions are horrible. The cell was disgustingly filthy when I first entered it. There were stains on the walls and the bunk that looked like boogers/snot and dried blood. ... Also, the cells have no windows and very minimal air circulation. [Plexiglas] 'spit shields' prevent air from flowing in cells."
He continued: "We are let out for one hour a day, Monday through Friday, for recreation which consists of being cuffed and led by a 'dog leash' attached to the cuffs to an outdoor area where there are a whole bunch of cages similar in size to our cell. We are placed one person per cage and left out there with nothing for one hour. This is where some inmates smuggle containers filled with feces, urine and other bodily fluids and fling it on each other.
"Some inmates actually undress, squat down and defecate into their hand and throw it like that. We also come out [three] times a week for a shower, which lasts anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes usually. Occasionally I've been left locked in the shower stall for close to an hour or more, obviously forgotten about. This is another area where inmates can throw feces, etc., because they put [two] inmates per shower stall, next to each other only separated by a fence-like partition. Other than special circumstances, these are the only times we come out of our cells."
This inmate told HRC that he hears constant banging on desks, beds and walls from inmates in the RHU — an unending barrage of noise. He hears loud sounds he can't identify, yelling from COs, and the screams of men shouting in mania from inside their cells. "Thankfully," he wrote, "I've never had an impulse to hurt myself, or at least a serious one I should say. This place definitely makes you think about it though."
SCI Dallas Deputy Superintendent Vincent Mooney dismisses these complaints. The claims, he notes, are purely anecdotal, and don't come from the most trustworthy of sources. "Not only do [those prisoners] have a reason to lie," he says, "but we look into every grievance filed by every prisoner, and if there's a problem with an officer or an inmate or a part of the prison itself, we fix it."
The debate over the propriety of solitary confinement is nothing new — it was even the focus of a recent Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode. Many psychologists argue, as Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz did for Wired in April 2009, that "for some people, the actual experience of isolation is so painful that it generates an anxiety or panic reaction. People lose their ability to control themselves. They become uncontrollably and sometimes permanently depressed in the face of this kind of treatment. Others become angry and unable to control those impulses."
A U.S. military study referenced in a New Yorker piece last May found that, "of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators who returned from imprisonment in Vietnam" — many of whom were tortured for years — most "reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered."
Jules Lobel, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has argued in federal court against prolonged solitary confinement, wrote in an article on the subject for the University of Pennsylvania's Journal of Constitutional Law in 2008: "One important aspect of human existence is social contact with others; such contact does constitute a basic human need."
Lobel argues that solitary confinement is no place for the mentally ill. "Many of the people that [prisons] confine to solitary are there because they have trouble conforming in general population," he says in an interview. "And they have trouble conforming because they're mentally ill. And so then they're basically being warehoused in these solitary confinement facilities."
The theory in the United States, he continues, "is that you're supposed to take everything you can from a prisoner — make his life miserable — so that he'll want to get back into general population. But for mentally ill people, the problem is not that they don't want to conform, but they can't. Because they're mentally ill."
But what's a prison system supposed to do with someone like Matthew Bullock?
"They're supposed to give them treatment," Lobel says. "But that's antithetical to the philosophy most people have about prisons — which is that they should treat these people harshly."
"SAFE AND ORDERLY"
SCI Dallas sits atop a giant hill in the suburbs of Wilkes-Barre, 120 miles north-northwest of Philadelphia. Jerome Walsh is its acting superintendent. (He took over after Bullock's death; Klopotoski was promoted in November 2009 to regional deputy secretary of DOC. He declined to comment for this story.) "Our mission is to run this place like a small city," Walsh says. "It's got a cafeteria, workers, schools, places where inmates can worship and congregate. Our goal is to keep them safe and orderly."
SCI Dallas houses about 2,140 inmates, some 400 of whom are serving life without the possibility of parole. It has 119 beds in its RHU, but not all of them are filled, Walsh says. This is in contrast to the rest of the facility: SCI Dallas, which was built to house 1,750 inmates, is overcrowded.
Mooney, SCI Dallas' deputy superintendent, says prisoners enter RHU primarily for their own protection, or if "they are a significant security risk" — either because they've attempted to escape or because they assaulted another inmate or a CO, or if prisoners have information about someone who has done something wrong.
The prison's rules call for a 15-day stay in RHU for disciplinary cases, which can be renewed another 15 days at the discretion of prison officials. Those in RHU for protection or other administration reasons can stay there indefinitely.
SCI Dallas officials reject HRC's allegations of abuse inside their RHU. "We know what's going on in our prison," Walsh says. "We take every allegation seriously. But we keep our investigations in-house for security reasons, and because it's in our policy that we're allowed to keep those investigations internal."
That means the complaints prisoners file against their COs aren't public record. Moreover, while Bensinger, the DOC spokeswoman, says the department investigated the allegations in HRC's report — as it does with all allegations of abuse, no matter the source, she says — it also means that neither DOC nor SCI Dallas have made public the results of whatever inquiries were conducted.
Asked about the claim in the Bullocks' lawsuit that Bullock was moved from a cell in RHU that had a video camera in it to one without a camera shortly before he committed suicide, Walsh says the RHU has only one cell with a camera. Mooney adds that "there was a very good reason" why Bullock was moved into a cell not monitored by a camera, but he would not say what it was. Beyond that, the SCI Dallas officials declined to answer any more questions about Bullock's death, citing the ongoing litigation.
"It's very easy to pick up on the bad things," Walsh says, "but the truth of the matter is that we run this prison as effectively as we can, and I think we do that job very well."
"IT FOLLOWS ME"
A former inmate at SCI Dallas, Tom — not his real name — served less than a decade in various state prisons on sexual assault charges until his release a few years ago. He was in SCI Dallas' RHU for several weeks in the late 1990s, while awaiting a court hearing.
After reading about Bullock's case last year, Tom contacted Centini to say he had experienced similar abuse. (Centini, in turn, made Tom available to be interviewed for this story.) His stint in administrative custody began on the RHU's top tier, where he says he felt safe. But almost immediately, he was moved downstairs to a different section of the RHU — where a friend of his victim was working, he says. He believes SCI Dallas officials wanted to place him in harm's way. (They categorically deny his accusation.) Tom says the ensuing three weeks were some of the worst of his life. The COs constantly told him to kill himself, he says. They pounded on his door whenever they went past, searched his room frequently and refused to feed him, and when they did feed him, he says, they served his food with shit — literally, fecal matter — on his plate. "I've been in solitary a few times," he says. "And being in solitary is a terrible thing. But at Dallas, it was torture. I did not sleep. I did not eat. I still have nightmares about it. It follows me."
At the same time, Tom says much of the problem with prisoner abuse — and the continued use of solitary confinement — lies with the inmates themselves. Some prisoners file "frivolous grievances and lawsuits, tying up the courts and hearing boards, preventing legitimate issues from being addressed."
But even then, he says, valid complaints likely wouldn't go anywhere at Dallas: "[COs] have way too much power. And in some places, you got COs who just go to work their eight hours. But at Dallas, it's like a brotherhood. They combine as one. And if they want to stop you from saying something — or if they want you dead or gone — they will break you down."
Prison officials did not allow SCI Dallas COs to speak on the record about Bullock's case. However, one CO who works in the solitary confinement unit of another state prison — who asked that neither his name nor the prison at which he works be revealed — says he thinks
Tom's story about being served feces is "total bullshit."
The rest of it, though, he believes: "If an inmate is acting like an ass by kicking their door or screaming for no reason or threatening COs — or acting like whining children — then we have every right to burn them on food, refuse to give them their hour of yard and treat them like children. If they act like grown men, then we'll treat them like grown men."
"OUT OF SIGHT"
It's unclear how many prisoners at SCI Dallas, or at any other state prison, are mentally ill. A study released in July by the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology that looked at New York City's Riker's Island, Chicago's Cook County Jail and the Los Angeles County Jail determined that 15 percent of each of those institutions' populations was mentally ill. Other studies put the percentage much higher, as much as 50 percent or more. But if you assume that 15 percent of SCI Dallas inmates are mentally ill, that's at least 320 inmates, who are treated by the four psychologists and one psychiatrist the prison usually has available each day, Walsh says. Many of these inmates, because of their disruptive nature, are bound to wind up in the hole.
Under any circumstance, says Lobel, the Pittsburgh law professor, that's not where they should be. Even more so if the abuse claims made about SCI Dallas' RHU are accurate.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges, "People don't really want to hear about what's going on in prisons. We want to keep prisoners out of sight and out of mind. And so legislators, the elite, Congress, they just don't really want to hear about prisoners unless one has been murdered or something like that. But if a prisoner's locked up for 10 years, I don't think anyone really wants to hear about how their mental health is being influenced by the prison system."
Walsh, strangely enough, offers a somewhat concurring thought. He began his career working for the state in mental health facilities outside DOC's jurisdiction.
"I understand the importance of mental health," he says. "But I realized very early on in my career that it was a shrinking field and that the Department of Corrections is always growing, always getting bigger. I knew there were opportunities for advancement here. You just don't have that when you're working in mental health care."
An unidentified inmate made reference to Bullock's death in his letters to HRC: "[A]t least one inmate committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell while I've been in this RHU. ... The jail swept that incident under the rug and put a new inmate in that cell the very next day."
The HRC report contains eight separate accounts from inmates in SCI Dallas' RHU who say Bullock was driven to suicide by abuse and harassment. Though Bullock was clearly predisposed toward killing himself, one inmate, Carrington Keys, who's serving up to 70 years following robbery and assault convictions, said there were COs who "encouraged prisoner Matthew Bullock to kill himself." Keys also claims that COs in Dallas' RHU bragged about their role in Bullock's suicide.
Isaac Sanchez, 24, serving up to seven years for charges related to a York burglary in late 2006, wrote that COs at Dallas had called Bullock a "child molester, snitch, pedophile and many other disrespectful names." Sanchez wrote that COs also told Bullock "that they don't take his suicide threats seriously and that if he wanted or needed a helping hand to assist his suicide task/threat," all he had to do was ask.
David Sierra, 30, who's serving time at SCI Dallas for a slew of 1997 Lebanon County charges including multiple counts of arson, robbery and aggravated assault, wrote that COs called "Bullock a child molester, and rapist," and "antagonized Bullock for days, telling him to kill himself," Sierra wrote. "This was an ongoing process until [Bullock] did what they forced him to do."
And John Paolino, 40, who's serving up to five years for DUI- and drug-related charges, wrote, "I hung myself Nov. 12 , and all these people did was lock me in a room naked for 18 days and take every medication that had helped me. I wouldn't have hung myself if they would've [listened] to me. If they wouldn't have continually messed with all my medications." According to DOC statistics, 13 prisoners died at SCI Dallas in 2009. Aside from Bullock's suicide, 11 deaths were listed as "natural"; another was considered "undetermined."
The HRC report doesn't blame any one person for Bullock's death; instead, it holds the system responsible. The report says, COs' physical abuse, combined with the system's unwillingness to deal with mental health issues, disinclination to listen to inmate grievances and reliance on solitary confinement — HRC labels solitary confinement "torture" in and of itself, a controversial position — creates an environment in which "physical abuse and assault, sexual harassment and violence ... psychological torment, medical deprivation, deprivation of food, exposure to dangerously unhygienic conditions, constant intimidation and retaliation, and the subversion of prisoners' due process rights are normative features of prison life in Pennsylvania."
No trial date has been set for the Bullocks' lawsuit, and DOC has yet to file its answer to their complaint. But when all is said and done, Bret Grote of HRC hopes the case sheds some light on how DOC operates.
He writes in an e-mail: "The death of Matthew Bullock and the routine torture and abuse of prisoners in solitary confinement should open people's eyes to the reality that the prison system is anything but a correctional system. ... [DOC] needs to be completely overhauled."
This article originally appeared in Philadelphia's City Paper