Staff not at fault in high-profile prison suicides, report finds

December 3, 2013
Alan Johnson, The Columbus Dispatch

Columbus — The suicide of Ariel Castro — who blamed his female victims and addiction to pornography for his shocking crimes — was “not surprising and perhaps inevitable,” two consultants hired by the state said.

The report released yesterday by Lindsay M. Hayes and Fred Cohen concluded that prison staffers made mistakes but were not responsible for Castro’s death and the suicide of Billy Slagle, who took his life three days before he was to be executed.

“The two suicides analyzed here had high-profile status, for different reasons, but neither can be attributed to the failure of DRC staff,” Hayes and Cohen said in a study for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction released yesterday.

Prisons Director Gary Mohr said in a statement that he will work with the consultants and prison workers to address the study’s recommendations.

Prison officials also announced yesterday that Matthew Gleason, Ryan Murphy and Caleb Ackley, the corrections officers on duty the night Castro committed suicide, were given “last-chance agreements,” meaning they are on strict probation for two years. The officers were previously suspended with pay for failing to do rounds and falsifying electronic logs.

Although the study reviewed 16 inmate suicides between January 2012 and August 2013, most of the probe concerned Castro. He pleaded guilty to nearly 1,000 counts related to his imprisonment of three women in his Cleveland home for about a decade, including aggravated murder for forcing one of the victims to miscarry, plus kidnapping and rape. Castro, 53, was found on Sept. 3 hanging in his cell at the Corrections Reception Center in Orient, southwest of Columbus.

Hayes and Cohen rejected the idea mentioned in a previous investigation by prison officials that Castro might have died unintentionally as a result of “autoerotic asphyxiation,” a practice in which someone is sexually aroused by shutting off oxygen to the brain by choking or hanging. Franklin County Coroner Jan Gorniak, who performed the autopsy on Castro, likewise rejected that suggestion in a Dispatch interview almost two months ago.

Instead, the study paints a picture of Castro as deeply troubled, alternately pompous, demanding, happy, paranoid, optimistic, but increasingly frustrated as his prison stay went on. Just before his death, he carefully placed an open Bible, family photos and family members’ names in his cell, “arranged to give the appearance of a shrine; all seemingly assembled in preparation for death.”

Assigned to a corner cell on the second floor of a prison segregation unit, Castro could not be regularly observed by other inmates. However, several prisoners interviewed by Hayes and Cohen said corrections officers were “constantly harassing the inmate by suggesting that his food had been tampered with.”

Castro lost about 10 pounds during his one-month prison stay, ending up at 168 pounds. The consultants said they could not confirm the harassment.

Castro began writing a journal on Aug. 10, mostly about the behavior of correctional staffers and his food. He complained in his journal of having chest pains, and said his cell and toilet were filthy. He asked for clean underwear and bedsheets, adding, “Still nothing gets done … I feel as though I’m being pushed over the edge, one day at a time.”

He also wrote “A Day in the Life of a Prisoner” beginning Aug. 10. “I eat, brush, and go back to bed, get up, lay down, get up, lay down. This goes on all day. … I pace in my cell, meditate, stare at the walls as I daydream a lot.

“I will never see light at the end of the tunnel, but that’s all right, it’s what I chose. … I’ve lots of time on my hands now to think and read, write, exercise. I want to make a bigger effort to try to commit to god.”

The consultants’ recommendations included adopting more mental-health staff involvement with “high-profile” inmates, correcting a “culture that has allowed officer falsification of logs related to security rounds,” employing earlier and more-rigorous staff training on suicide, expanding agreements with counties for better records transfer, and pursuing a “closer examination of the uses of mental-health observation and close-watch statuses.”

Officials with the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the union representing prison workers, said they were disappointed that Hayes and Cohen did not mention the impact of overcrowded, short-staffed prisons. “We look at it as an eye-opener for the department,” said Tim Shafer, union operations director and a former corrections officer. “There is not enough staff for the inmates we have. A 30-minute route (for prison rounds) is unrealistic given how thin we’re stretched.”


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