Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

An inmate patient at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash. reads in a room at the Psychiatric Ward on Oct. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Joe Tierney)
A patient at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash., reads in a room at the psychiatric ward. (AP file photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Joe Tierney)

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, round-the-clock help is available through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988, or chat online at 988lifeline.org/chat. For the Veterans Crisis Line, call 988, then press 1; text 838255; or chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

The first suicide, June 10

As I sit in my cell at the Washington State Penitentiary, I hear a guard yell, “Cell in!” It's only 3:11 p.m., 20 minutes before the usual lockdown time.

I jump to the door and peek out. There are a lot of staff running in and out of the living area next to mine.

Two guards pass near me. As they walk down the stairs, the guard who has been on the job less than a year cries. The second guard hugs her. “It's OK.”

This is my 20th year in prison. After that much time, you learn to interpret sights, sounds and the reactions of corrections staff. I'm certain there has been a suicide.

The crying guard leaves early, too worked up to finish her shift.

We are locked down for an extra hour. Eventually the paramedics come and take the body away.

The man’s name, I later learn, was Timothy W. Hemphill. He was 35.

My dayroom opens and we congregate. There is a brief discussion between prisoners of who it was and how it was done, especially since the prison cells are designed to prevent death by hanging.

An Oct. 10 report describing the incident, released by the Washington State Department of Corrections, states that a “second officer arrived [between 3:13 and 3:15] with a noose cutter” and removed a ligature. The report concludes that the cause of death was “was anoxic brain injury secondary to ligature strangulation.”

My curiosity about how he succeeded is driven by my own past desires to end my life. I had attempted to hang myself in a segregation cell in 2018.

The next day I reflected on my emotions. Sorrow was not one of them. Should I be sad? Had 20 years of prison hardened my heart?

No, that couldn’t be. I cried when my pet bug, a praying mantis named Little Danno, died. I am anxious that my house plants I care for each day may be taken away by the new unit supervisor.

The second suicide, June 11

I begin writing this article the day after the suicide, a Sunday.

Later that day, I hear a guard yell, “Cell in!” It is only 2:30 p.m., two hours before the usual lockdown time. I jump to my door and peek out. I ask the guard passing by, “What now?”

“Someone jumped off the top tier” in the building next door, he says. The second suicide in 24 hours.

I’m quite sure it isn’t my buddy who is housed over there. But the nagging fear compels me to call his girlfriend who recently moved to Washington state. I am cautious about what to say. I do not want to scare her.

“When was the last time you talked to your boyfriend?” I ask her, trying to sound casual. She says she just got off the phone with him. He told her he had just seen the suicide. A man who had reportedly cut himself a month ago jumped off the third tier and died on impact.

Her boyfriend reported that the body lay there for an hour or so until staff brought in a mobile curtain, obstructing the view.

The man’s name was Everette D. Alonge. He was 23. An Oct. 9 report describing the incident confirmed the cause of death: “He took his own life by jumping from the upper tier in his living unit causing head injuries incompatible with life.”

The dayroom opens. Everyone is talking about what they have heard about the incident. I tell the guys what my buddy's girlfriend said.

I have thought many times about jumping off the third tier. But the fear of winding up alive and paralyzed has kept me from trying.

We lock down for the 4 p.m count. I hear several people talking in the dayroom. I jump to the door.

There are five mental health counselors walking down the tier. That is unusual because mental health staff generally do not work on the weekends.

One of the counselors approaches my door and asks how I'm doing.

“I'm in prison,” I say. “What do you think?”

I ask why mental health counselors are here on a Sunday. “Just to see how you’re doing,” she says.

I ask what happened yesterday. She says she does not know. I ask what happened today. Same answer.

I wonder why she is lying. We all know what happened.

I tell her I requested to speak to my mental health counselor over a month ago and haven't received a response. She wants to know who I asked. I tell her. She writes something down and moves on to the next cell door.

We are in a section of the prison for prisoners requiring psychiatric treatment. I cannot help seeing a cruel irony: I haven’t received any treatment since my prior suicide attempt.

The third suicide, June 15

Four days pass. It's Thursday. I am cleaning my cell when, at 7:30 a.m., I hear the guard yell, “Cell in!”

“Another jumper?” I ask as a guard walks by. He nods. Same building as before, he says.

Like last time, I call my buddy’s girlfriend. She relays to me that my buddy watched the guy hit the floor.

The man’s name was Michael R. Giordano. According to an Oct. 13 report describing this incident, he died the next day at the hospital. “The cause of death was closed traumatic head injury causing anoxic brain injury.” He was 29.

We are placed on indefinite lockdown.

In September, the local paper released the names of the three men who died.

Each of the three DOC reports cited above came from the Unexpected Fatality Review Committee. The authors investigated these incidents, then issued recommendations for avoiding unexpected deaths in the future.

In each of the reports documenting these suicides, the authors did not offer any formal recommendations for corrective action.

In two cases, they advise monitoring coffee intake and finding ways to limit caffeine consumption by prisoners — without, they emphasized, undermining their “decisional autonomy.”

I have managed my own suicidal thoughts and bouts of deep depression through journalistic writing, listening to mellow music — currently anything by Eric Clapton — and drinking my morning cup of coffee.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington. He is a member of the PJP chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.