A shocking wave of suicides is hitting North Carolina’s prisons

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The first inmate North Carolina prison guards found dead was Scott Sica. On the morning of April 19, he was found hanging in his solitary confinement cell in Laurinburg. A 40-year-old with a sandy mustache, he was serving a life sentence for a 1996 murder.

Later that week, on April 23, Tony Davis was found dead in a prison south of Charlotte, hanged by his bed sheet. On May 1, Lori Pote was rushed to a hospital and later declared dead, apparently from prescription medication overdose. And then in the early morning of May 5, Steven Hass was also discovered hanging from a sheet.

In the span of just 17 days in the last month, these four North Carolina inmates committed suicide while in prison custody; another inmate, 72-year-old Bernard Sanford, committed suicide in January. In all of 2015, there were only three inmate suicides.


The troubling trend, reported Wednesday by the Charlotte Observer, has sparked investigations and has criminal justice advocates criticizing the state corrections department for not providing inmates sufficient mental healthcare.

While the number of prison suicides the state has seen in two-and-a-half weeks is shocking, dying inmates isn't a problem exclusive to North Carolina. Around the country, hundreds of inmates die in prisons and jails every year, many after only a few days in prison and before they've been convicted of any crime.

Activists in North Carolina say one of the reasons behind the numbers might be a lack of mental health treatment. "The fact is they just don't have the staff to tend to the inmates' needs," Elizabeth Forbes, the executive director of the criminal justice advocacy group NC Cure, told me. Not all of the state's 37,600 inmates are able to quickly see a mental health professional, she said.

Several of the inmates who committed suicide were kept in solitary confinement and were supposed to be checked on hourly by prison officials.


In a statement to the Observer, David Guice, the state Commissioner of Prisons, said the rash of suicides was being investigated. "While any case of suicide is unfortunate, the number of suicide deaths is greatly outnumbered by successful interventions that help prevent suicidal inmates from acting to take their own lives," he said. "Despite these many successes in crisis management, there is a recognition that human behavior often is unpredictable and some individuals show no overt sign of suicide risk prior to a lethal attempt."

But Forbes said that the department could be doing more to ensure inmates who need mental health treatment are being helped. She said her group has received "hundreds" of letters from inmates and their family members complaining of long waiting lists and poor standards of care for mental health services.


Not everyone believes that all five of the inmates who were reported to have killed themselves this year actually did so. David Davis, the uncle of Tony Davis, told me that his family had suspicions about Tony's death. Tony, who was 26 and from Raleigh, was serving a 40-year sentence for a murder charge.

"He was more like a son to me than a nephew," Davis told me. "He did not commit suicide and we know that…We know his spirit. He never would never give up like this, he was not a quitter."


Davis said he didn't want to speculate but it was hard for him not to draw parallels with cases like the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested for a traffic violation and died in a Texas jail. Her death was called a suicide, which her family has questioned. The officer who arrested her has been fired. (Davis is also black.)

A spokesperson for the Polkston Police Department said Davis' death was still being investigated but was assumed to be a suicide. The final autopsy results are not yet available, and a full toxicology report could take up to two years.


Davis said his family had not requested an independent autopsy, and that Tony's body has been cremated.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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