Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Suicides spike at WA prisons, prisoners say they need more access to mental health care

A watchtower made of concrete is seen along a prison wall at Washington State Penitentiary.
Provided Photo
Washington Department of Corrections
Washington State Penitentiary is in Walla Walla.

A recent report shows a rise in unexpected deaths in Washington state prisons this year – including a cluster of suicides over the summer.

Washington prisons reported a total of six suicides over the past year – the highest number in a single year since 2014. Three of the suicides happened within days of each other at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in June.

Talon Cutler-Flinn is incarcerated in the unit where two of those suicides happened. He says prisoners need more access to mental health care, and accountability from prison staff for how they interact with incarcerated people who have mental health needs

"That's all we need: accountability and treatment. Those are the two main things that will help drastically change prisons," Cutler-Flinn said, noting that he wants staff to wear body cameras.

Cutler-Flinn said many prisoners don't open up to staff about having thoughts of suicide. He and others say close observation rooms, so-called "suicide watch" cells, are seen as a type of punishment.

"You're in a cold, cold room and you have to sleep on a concrete slab until they clear you to have a pillow, and you got a big old glass wall in front of your cell, so they can see you going to the bathroom, they can see everything,” Cutler-Finn said.

“It's worse than being in the hole," he added, using a common term for solitary confinement.

Jeffrey McKee is also incarcerated in one of the units for prisoners who need psychiatric care. McKee attempted to take his own life in 2018, and calls the experience of being placed in a suicide watch cell "degrading." McKee says he also hasn't received any meaningful mental health treatment since then.

"I think a lot of people just want somebody to listen, you know? But there's not a lot of safe places to do that in here," McKee said, adding that he thinks prisoners should be able to access the national suicide hotline. It's something the Office of the Corrections Ombuds is urging the Department of Corrections to promote inside its prisons.

McKee and Cutler-Flinn say that their units were on lockdown for days after the third suicide in June.

A graph shows the number of suicides in Washington's prisons over the years, with six listed for the 2023 year.
Washington Department of Corrections
There were just two suicides in state prisons last year, and three the year before, according to data from the Department of Corrections.

According to official reports, none of those three suicides prompted recommendations for corrective action for the department. Since then, reports from Department of Corrections officials show the department has made updates to some of its facilities to prevent self-harm.

But prisoners accuse the department of "slow-walking" those changes that they say could have prevented at least two of the deaths. Cutler-Flinn knew one of the men who died, Michael R. Giordano. He was 29.

"He was struggling internally but he was a genuine man, he was a young kid who was just trying to find himself," Cutler-Flinn said. "I know he loved his family because he was always talking to his parents, he always loved to joke around and laugh. He was a young kid, you know, too young to go out like that."

Still, preventing suicide in prisons remains an ongoing issue that the state continues to grapple with. Corrections officials said in a recent report that the department is working on improving its suicide prevention practices, based on recommendations from a national suicide prevention expert. The department says it has also made changes to provide private settings to conduct mental health screenings and evaluations in its restrictive housing units.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or considering self-harm, call or text 988 for help. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.