Suicide Watch in Women’s Prison: Who Cares?


On Thursday, September 18, Megan Fritz hung herself. On Monday, September 22, Mary Knight did the same. Both women were incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison when they committed suicide. Yet, as clearly indicated in nearly all of the media coverage of the incidents, neither woman was on suicide watch. Why weren’t Megan and Mary on suicide watch when they ended their lives?

One reason could be that what prisons and jails call “suicide watch” is an operating procedure disguised as a ‘prevention program’ implemented to protect facilities from liability. As the National Institute of Corrections notes, inmate suicides are financially, legally, and socially “devastating” for facilities and staff, often prompting lawsuits and negative publicity. Suicide watch is meant to care for prisons, not prisoners. Women behind bars are not ignorant– they are well aware of the negative consequences associated with suicide watch.

First, suicide watch leads to stigmatization for inmates, especially women. When women exhibit suicidal behavior or intention, they are often understood as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘manipulative.’[1] Thus, suicidal women especially risk being labeled, distrusted, and disregarded. One correctional worker admitted that, “too often we conclude that the inmate is simply attempting to manipulat[e] their environment and, therefore, such behavior should be ignored and not reinforced through intervention.” One instructor of the Suicide Prevention training for correctional employees in Washington, D.C. taught his students that most suicide attempts are simply ways to “seek attention or misbehave.”

Pervasive attitudes like these lead to the poor treatment of inmates and impede care for those who need it.

In Northern Ireland, for example, female inmates at the Mourne House Unit and Maghaberry Prison reported[2] that it was normal for prison staff to bully suicidal women and those who self harmed. Correctional officers were known to taunt and laugh at women on suicide watch, blowing smoke in their faces and calling them names. When one woman felt she was in crisis, she called to ask for help, but the guard replied: “stop ringing the bell and shut the fuck up.” Another woman tried to hang herself twice in one day, yet inmates overheard a senior officer telling a subordinate officer, “don’t be looking in at her. Don’t even look at her. Fuck her.” Suicidal women are shamed, ignored, and persecuted when they express their feelings and needs.

Furthermore, when inmates admit to suicidal ideation or exhibit suicidal behavior like self-harm, they are often subject to harsher punishments as part of standard suicide prevention precautions. Those on suicide watch usually lose basic amenities like showers, bedding, phone calls, and family visits. They can be denied jobs and early release. Often, they are stripped of their clothing and are either left naked or are forced to wear “degrading and humiliating” paper safety smocks. National correctional standards require that they be housed in “suicide-resistant” cells; oftentimes, this means they are sent to solitary confinement or lockdown where they are isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation. In one county jail, suicidal inmates are confined in what they call “squirrel cages”: a 3x3x7 foot box fashioned out of chain-link fencing. Commonly, they are trapped there for more than 24 hours. Other correctional facilities utilize closed-circuit televisions to film suicidal inmates around the clock. Currently, the US Department of Justice is funding the evaluation of a device that “keep[s] track of inmates’ movements and vital signs using Doppler radar.” Being on suicide watch means losing what little freedom and autonomy inmates have. All of these ‘precautions,’ coupled with inappropriate responses from correctional staff, deter those in need from accessing mental health services, instead working as technologies of surveillance and control to further punish them.

Why didn’t Megan and Mary admit to feeling suicidal in York County Prison? Would you?

[1] Jaworski, Katrina. 2010. “The Gender-ing of Suicide.” Australian Feminist Studies 25(63):47-61.

[2] Scranton, Phil and Moore, Linda. 2005. “Degradation, Harm, and Survival in a Women’s Prison.” Social Policy & Society 5(1):67–78.

(Photo Credit: York County, PA, Government)

The short and terrible life of Pennsylvania SCI-Muncy Prisoner #6

Last Monday, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania for abuse of prisoners diagnosed as “seriously mentally ill.” DRNP claims that over 800 prisoners deemed seriously mentally ill are dumped, for long periods of time, into Restricted Housing Units, basically solitary confinement, where they are kept for 23 hours a day, during the week, and 24 hours a day, during weekends and holidays. No contact with others, no work or education or religious services or rehabilitative programs, and of course little to no mental health care. But the lights are left on in the cells 24 a days. So …

It’s a vicious, even criminal, cycle. People deemed seriously mentally ill end up in solitary, which then results in parole denial, which sends them back to the hole. If it weren’t so dreadful, it would be considered elegant.

The suit profiles twelve prisoners, 11 men and one woman. The woman prisoner is in SCI-Muncy. Pennsylvania has two women’s prisons, Muncy and Cambridge Springs. Muncy is both maximum security and the intake prison for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania. Muncy also houses Pennsylvania’s death row for women. Every woman prisoner in Pennsylvania first comes to Muncy, where her `security level’ is assigned, based on an assessment of criminal record, medical, mental health, and substance abuse. Lower security prisoners are sent to Cambridge Springs; the rest stay at Muncy. Guess where those with serious mental health issues go?

Muncy has a death row, but it doesn’t have a Secure Special Needs Unit, or SSNU. The profile of the one woman prisoner suggests why that matters.

Prisoner #6

Prisoner #6 is a 39-year-old female prisoner in SCI-Muncy. She has a long history of serious mental illness, including at least one suicide attempt and multiple admissions to state psychiatric hospitals, prior to her incarceration. Prisoner #6 has a “D” stability rating and has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, low normal intelligence (86 I.Q.), and a personality disorder. Prisoner #6 has been charged with disciplinary infractions and sentenced to disciplinary sanction in solitary confinement in the RHU based on behaviors directly attributable to her serious mental illness, such as throwing liquids, covering her cell window with paper, sticking her arms through her cell door food slot, harming herself and demanding to be placed in restraints, and flooding her cell.

“Between May 6, 2001, and January 14, 2012, Prisoner #6 received 115 misconduct reports, mostly occurring in the RHU. Her mental condition has deteriorated in the RHU. Although SCI-Muncy has no SSNU, according to the DOC website, prison records state she has been assigned to the SCI-Muncy “SSNU.” However, she has been returned to the RHU as a “time out” from this “virtual” SSNU for weeks or months at a time.

“Prisoner #6 received a negative psychological evaluation for parole purposes in July 2010 because of the behavior described in her numerous misconduct reports, most if not all of which arose from conduct directly attributable to her mental illness. An independent psychiatrist has recommended that Prisoner #6 receive psychosocial rehabilitative treatment, which cannot be provided in an RHU.”

The story of Prisoner #6 is in many respects like that of her eleven male counterparts, except for the phantom SSNU. Somehow, Prisoner #6 was sent to a “special needs unit” that doesn’t exist. After that, she was returned to solitary. If it weren’t so dreadful, it would be ironic.

Women prisoners, even those at maximum-security Muncy, report lower rates of recidivism than male prisoners, but “they are also all women.” Women prisoners also report much higher rates of mental health illness, much higher rates of abuse, much higher rates of needing help. Higher than whom? Higher than everyone. Higher than men prisoners. Higher than women in `the free world.’ And how does the State respond? It dumps their bodies, for months and years on end, in ferociously well-lit pits where their conditions can only worsen. That is the short and terrible life of Prisoner #6, designed, directed and produced by the State of Pennsylvania. Living with serious mental illness? Welcome to hell.


(Photo credit: Clinic)