Jamie Wallace died last week, found hanging from a piece of cloth in his prison cell, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. Twenty-four years old, he was first incarcerated at 18, after pleading guilty to the murder of his mother. In six years, he was placed on suicide watch more than 60 times.
Earlier this month, Wallace testified in a federal, class-action lawsuit brought by inmates over the lack of adequate mental health care in Alabama’s state prisons. (Both the Alabama Department of Corrections and MHM Services, the company contracted to provide mental health treatment, are named defendants.) A transcript of his testimony is not available, but a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing some of the inmates in the trial, shared organization’s notes on his testimony in an email.
Wallace, who grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive household, was six years old when he was first treated for mental health issues. “[I] hear stuff that people don’t hear,” he testified. Voices in his head “causes me to cut myself.” He began receiving mental health treatment every two weeks and “talked about…my bipolar, ADHD, schizophrenia, retardation. I would try to get by on medication.” When he started taking Wellbutrin, he stopped hearing voices. As he got older, Wallace started seeing a psychiatrist: “We would talk about how not to cut myself.” He completed the tenth grade, but did not graduate from high school.
In 2009, Wallace pleaded guilty to the murder of his mother and the attempted murder of his grandmother. He was just sixteen years old when he shot his mother, and had been released from a mental hospital on new medication just a few weeks before. According to court filings, Wallace received 10 disciplinary demerits “for conduct related to suicidality, including self harm” while in ADOC custody. Meanwhile, Wallace testified, certain corrections officers “will bring in a knife or razor blade” and tell inmates, “You want to kill yourself? Here you go—do it with this.”
Inmates being segregated from the general population for disciplinary reasons are often housed in a residential treatment unit (RTU) or intensive psychiatric stabilization unit (SU), where, despite their names, mental health care is particularly lacking. On June 24, 2012, Wallace got a razor blade from the barber while being housed at the Donaldson Correctional Facility RTU and used it to cut himself. For this, Wallace lost privileges for 30 days, and missed visits with his father. From the SPLC’s trial notes:
June 29, 2012 – cut himself again on the left wrist.
Aug. 19, 2012. Cut his wrist, got a disciplinary write-up – loss of privileges for 45 days.
On Oct. 31, 2012, he cut himself with a broken light bulb on the side of his neck. Opened a light fixture, broke bulb. This was in the suicide cell at Donaldson.
Dec. 3, 2013 – attempted to hang himself with a sheet. Connected the sheet to a light fixture. Someone found him at pill call, found him before he could complete suicide.
April 21, 2012, cut his left wrist. Got discipline, lost 21 days of all privileges. “Doghouse days,” meaning segregation days.
July 8, 2013, Nov. 2013: cut his arms with a sharpened chicken bone. Bit his harm. Both times he had to be taken to the hospital. He filed down a pencil top and cut his arm; unclear when from notes.
June 27, 2016: jumped off the sink, hit his head on the floor.
At one point, the judge asked Wallace why he hurt himself. “Depression problems,” Wallace replied.
In her testimony on Tuesday, Ruth Naglich, associate commissioner for health services at the Alabama Department of Corrections said that only a few of ADOC’s facilities are actually equipped to constantly observe inmates on suicide watch. Bullock Correctional, where Wallace was held, is not one of them. Many of the prison system’s issues with suicide watch can be attributed to prison layout and lack of staff, Naglich testified, confirming the findings of Eldon Vail, security and conditions expert and a former corrections officer.
“The lack of sufficient numbers of correctional officers is an ongoing barrier to the delivery of healthcare in the ADOC,” Vail wrote in his report. “The ADOC is profoundly overcrowded, dangerously understaffed and simply incapable of running safe and secure prisons that protect the physical and mental health of the people in custody. It is a system in a state of perpetual collapse.” In October, the Department of Justice announced a statewide investigation into conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons.
“The most fundamental problem is that the ADOC has about twice as many inmates than they are able to safely and humanely manage,” Vail’s report continues. “They have less than half the custody staff needed to supervise these inmates. Their facilities are underbuilt and decaying. Inmates exist in conditions that I would expect to find in a developing country, not in a prison in the USA.”
“As a result of lack of correctional staff, someone could die?” the judge asked Naglich on Tuesday. “Yes sir,” she said.