The death of abortion foe John Salvi at a maximum security prison focused fresh attention on the plight of the mentally ill in prison Tuesday. "This case just brings to light a very troublesome and widespread problem," said Jenni Gainesborough of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "There are many people in prison who are mentally ill," she said, adding, "And frequently the mentally ill wind up in maximum security facilities because they are difficult to deal with, they are unruly, the level of violence against them is much higher." Lindsay Hayes, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), a Mansfield, Mass.-based non-profit group that studies criminal and mental health issues, estimated between eight and 15 percent of the nation's 1.6 million prisoners suffered from mental illness.
"And in a maximum security prison, the emphasis is on security, not mental health," he said. Salvi, 24, was found dead in his cell at Massachusetts' maximum security prison in Walpole Friday. He was serving a sentence of more than two life terms for shooting seven health care workers -- including two women who died -- in the Boston suburb of Brookline in the worst violence at abortion clinics in the nation. His lawyer, J.W. Carney, argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. A jury rejected that argument in March. Subsequently, Carney wrote to prison officials urging them to contact psychiatrists before incarcerating his client. Corrections Department spokesmen said mental health staff had met with Salvi several times. The state medical examiner listed asphyxiation and suicide on Salvi's death certificate, but his lawyer, J.W. Carney cast doubt on that verdict.
"His feet were tied. His hands were tied together. There was cotton stuffed in his mouth and a plastic bag over his head," Carney said at a news conference. The Norfolk County district attorney's office confirmed Carney's statement. Dr. Lowell Levine, director of medical legal investigations for the New York State Police Dept, said in a telephone interview, "There are many cases of suicide in which there are multiple gunshot wounds, multiple stab wounds. "If someone wants to commit suicide they certainly can overcome the so-called will to live."
Dr. Alan Tuckman, a forensic psychiatrist in Rockland County, N.Y., said he found Salvi's bound hands and feet "highly unusual when seen in combination with a plastic bag." He noted, however, that "asphyxiation by plastic bag causes carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide causes you to breathe more. And an added side effect of carbon dioxide is a sleepy state in which is it quite possible to lose interest in saving yourself." Suicide, according to a June 1995 study by NCIA, ranks third behind natural causes and AIDS, as the leading cause of death in the nation's prisons. Some 180 inmates commit suicide annually.
Salvi's was the third suicide by a prisoner in Massachusetts this year, according to the department of public safety.
Gov. William Weld has asked the department to expand its inquiry into Salvi's death to include a thorough examination of mental health care provided to inmates.
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