Rash of inmate suicides raise concerns over mental health services

Rash of inmate suicides raise concerns over mental health services
(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A recent spate of prison suicides has prompted relatives and prison watchdogs to call for more oversight of Hawaii's prison system.

During the past four months, three prisoners committed suicide while in custody at Kulani Prison on the Big Island, Halawa Correctional Facility and the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua.

"I was sick. I was almost non-believing. I didn't believe it for a minute. I thought surely they got the wrong kid," said Richard Fortson, whose 30-year-old daughter Jessica Fortson hanged herself in her WCCC cell in July.

Richard Fortson, a former police officer and now a council member in his hometown of Trinity, Ala., said his daughter -- who suffered from bipolar disorder -- was serving a five-year-sentence for credit card fraud and identity theft and was supposed to be released in January.

He questioned why she was placed in solitary confinement because he says she previously had tried to commit suicide.

"I don't think they have adequate psychiatric evaluation or care," said Fortson.

But prison officials said Jessica Fortson was being punished for assaulting another inmate.

"Fortson was not on suicide watch at the time of her death," said DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.

"She was assessed by medical staff and was cleared to serve her 30-day disciplinary sanction."

The American Civil Liberties Union said it worries that prisoners aren't getting the necessary mental health services they need.

"Very quickly in the state of Hawaii (prisons), the conditions have deteriorated not just in terms of the general conditions but also for mental health services," said Mateo Caballero, legal director for the ACLU of Hawaii.

The ACLU recently asked the Feds to investigate state overcrowding and inadequate healthcare and mental health services at Hawaii's prisons.

That complaint was filed before Oahu Community Correctional Center's former mental health director Dr. Mark Mitchell went public with allegations of inadequate mental health services at the Kalihi prison.

Mitchell and several other mental health staffers said they were fired earlier this year because of their complaints.

Meanwhile, the state said it's not seeing an increase in prison suicides. It said staff is trained to "do everything we can to prevent patients from committing suicide."

"We are confident that our practices are sound and we take suicide detection and prevention very seriously," said Schwartz.

We're told that some relatives are now considering filing a lawsuit against the prison system over the suicides.

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