Mentally ill prisoner's suicide probed
Man locked up among hardened criminals
WALPOLE -- In some Massachusetts prisons, mentally ill prisoners may not be getting the care they need.
NewsCenter 5's Janet Wu reported Thursday that instead, many suffer among the most violent and dangerous criminals.
It was six days before Christmas in 2005. Nelson Rodriguez had been locked up at MCI Walpole for 23 hours a day in segregation for weeks. He had visitors that day, but they don't believe he knew it. He could not make eye contact. His arms were filled with fresh cuts from the result of self-mutilation. He could not answer questions. There were only random mumblings about his past.
"There was nothing. (He was) starring at his feet, hands in his lap, and (his) shoulders were rounded over," said Ashley Feinstein, of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.
Twenty-four hours later, Rodriguez, 26, committed suicide. He was found hanging behind closed doors in his cell.
Jason Nelson, Rodriguez's former counselor, said that he found the suicide shocking.
"Do I find it unbelievable? No," Nelson said.
Rodriguez, who was diagnosed as chronically, mentally ill with a history of suicide attempts, ended up in Walpole's Cell Block 10, which is home to the state's most dangerous criminals.
"You're talking about a person that was, you know, 24 to 25 years old with a 10-year-old mentality in a place geared for harden criminals," Nelson said.
Rodriguez had been in and out of jail several times for petty theft and breaking and entering. But his family said when he took his medication, he was sweet -- a different man.
"He was a delight, but when he is off the meds, he would say, 'Didi, I hear voices.' (I would say), 'are you taking your meds?' (He would say,) 'no. (I would say,) 'you need to take your meds,'" Rodriguez's aunt, Mary DeJesus Torres, said.
But there was no one to supervise Rodriguez, and one day during a scuffle in a shelter he knifed another homeless man, who was treated and released the next day. Rodriguez's sentence was 4 to 7 years.
On the morning he died, Rodriguez, while behind bars, threw his food at a guard, who then slammed the solid steel cell door shut. Other inmates heard that last conversation.
"The reports we hear are that when the officer shut the door, Nelson screamed that he needed to see mental health. He also screamed, 'don't shut that door. I will hang it up,' which is prison jargon for 'I will kill myself,' and a couple of reports were that the guard responded, 'go ahead. Do us all a favor,'" said Joel Thompson, of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.
"I am sure every guard, every worker in that institution knew or had to know there was something very, very wrong and very, very dangerous about Nelson and very suicidal," said Peter Berkowitz, of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.
"Let's stop looking at the dollar figure and let's start looking at the human figure," Nelson said.
Legislators plan to hold a special hearing at the Statehouse next week to examine Rodriguez's death. They estimate that about a quarter of all inmates, or 2,500 prisoners, are mentally ill.
Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections would not comment on the case. Officials said that the Rodriguez's suicide remained under investigation.