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‘Super max’ suicides put vigilance at issue July 9, 2007

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Oregon State Penitentiary’s Intensive Management Unit, designed to tame the state’s toughest convicts, has been rocked by a rash of suicidal acts by inmates in the past 2 1/2 years.

Aaron Munoz, 21, hanged himself in his cell in January 2005.

Jeremy Ayala attempted to hang himself in October. He survived, only to hang himself at a different Salem prison in May. He was 24.

And Randall James, 46, died in November after he was found bleeding in his cell from self-inflicted wounds.

An Oregon State Police investigation into James’ death uncovered lax supervision of inmates and falsified cell check logs by officers.

Prison officials said recent changes in the IMU — known as a “super max” to denote conditions beyond maximum security — are designed to bolster inmate supervision and safety in the top-security unit.

But critics adamantly say the IMU isn’t safe, especially for depressed or mentally ill inmates who can’t cope with extreme isolation.

“If you didn’t have psychiatric problems, it’ll probably cause psychiatric problems,” said Steve Gorham, a Salem defense lawyer who has represented inmates in the IMU. “And if you do have psychiatric problems, it exacerbates them.”

Gorham said inmates are subjected to sensory deprivation while they are kept in their cells for more than 23 hours per day. Amplified noise that seems to bounce off concrete and steel poses a double whammy for inmates, he said.

“It’s all metal cells, with metal doors,” he said. “There’s no insulation to suck up the noise, so the overload in IMU is just horrendous. The sensory deprivation comes in not having a lot of contact with people, being locked in that room for 23 1/2 hours a day and not being able to get outside.”

Munoz brooded in his cell, said his aunt, Kelly Ann Mills of Portland. Isolation fueled his anger, she said, along with shame and depression caused by sexual abuse inflicted on him as a teenager by a juvenile parole officer.




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