Did ADOC Screw-Ups Lead to An Inmate's Suicide?

Jonathan D. Wilson
Jonathan D. Wilson New Times Photo-Illustration. Source images: Arizona Department of Corrections, Inked Pixels/

On Monday afternoon, Jonathan Wilson met with mental health staff at the Eyman state prison complex in Florence. Seven hours later, he'd hung himself inside his cell.

Wilson, who was 31 years old, was serving a seven-year sentence for trafficking in stolen property. He'd been classified as an MH3B inmate, meaning that he was generally stable but needed regular psychological and psychiatric intervention.

"Over the weekend, he had been extremely agitated and paranoid, and was trying to get in touch with his family," Corene Kendrick of the Prison Law Office said Wednesday, during a hearing in federal court.

Medical records show that hours before committing suicide, Wilson had met with one of the Department of Corrections' psychologists and told them that he was experiencing increased paranoia and auditory hallucinations, she said.

"He asked to see a psychiatrist to adjust and evaluate his medication, and he reported that he was not being allowed calls and he was becoming paranoid about this."

For some reason, though, this didn't raise any red flags.

"The psych associate indicated that he was not a danger to himself or others," Kendrick continued. "He was not placed on suicide watch, and he committed suicide about seven hours later."

Wilson was supposed to see mental health staff every week, she pointed out, but over the past three months he'd gone nine or 10 days at a time without a visit.

Representatives for the Department of Corrections responded by arguing that, technically, they had complied with the Parsons v. Ryan stipulation: Mental health staff are required to do rounds once each calendar week, not every seven days.

That led to a heated discussion about what, exactly, the word "weekly" means.

"In any event, the man is dead, so I don’t think arguing about seven days or nine days is going to bring him back to life," Kendrick finally said.

Meanwhile, the bigger question remains unanswered: What happened during those seven hours?

Did anyone check on Wilson at any point, before finding him dead in his cell? Had staff at Eyman taken any additional precautions after he reported that he had been experiencing paranoia and hallucinations? How did no one notice what was happening until it was too late?

ADOC officials told the Arizona Republic that they would be working with the county medical examiner to investigate Wilson's death, as is standard practice whenever an inmate dies.

Further information was not immediately available, and ADOC staff did not respond to a request for comment.

Judge David K. Duncan described Wilson's death as "very troubling."

Earlier that day, he had warned the Department of Corrections that it would be facing significant fines if they continue to fail to meet basic minimum standards for inmate health care. Despite the fact that ADOC received a virtually identical warning last month, and the month before that, their own reports show that they're still falling short.

"It's good reminder that when we talk about these numbers, they’re not just numbers," Duncan said. "Behind each them is a life, or, in this case, sadly, a death."
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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