Death in the Supermax

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  October 11, 2006

A 25-year-old inmate killed himself in the state’s Supermax prison on October 5, corrections officers say. But while a Rockland newspaper quoted the prison warden as saying the inmate was not considered a suicide risk, Ryan Rideout had a long history of mental illness and suicidal behavior.

Three times within three weeks in 2004, he had threatened to jump while he walked along the top edge of a four-story building in downtown Bangor. His threats closed off downtown traffic each time, until police talked him away from the edge.

The department has admitted problems in, and repeatedly promised reforms to, the Maine State Prison’s solitary-confinement Supermax unit, which contains many mentally ill prisoners. But the reforms did not come quickly enough to save Rideout’s life. He hung himself from a sprinkler head with his bedding, officials say.

In 2004, Renée Ordway of the Bangor Daily News described how, after Rideout’s threats to jump from the building, he had been refused admission to Acadia Hospital, a private mental health facility in Bangor, because the hospital said it didn’t have the resources to deal with him. He told her from his Penobscot County jail cell that he had tried to commit suicide at least 13 times since the age of 12, “and his list of mental health diagnoses is nearly as long as the list of medications he has been on and off during his lifetime.”

Denise Lord, the corrections department’s associate commissioner, says that among Supermax reforms already instituted are the hiring of a second full-time psychiatric social worker and the placement of “high-risk, mentally or behaviorally challenging prisoners” in a previously vacant 16-person “pod” of cells. But only four prisoners have been placed there so far, she says, and Rideout was not one of them. In fact, he was in the lowest-security level within the Supermax.

The prison says it puts people in the Supermax for disciplinary reasons or because they are disruptive. Rideout was verbally abusive to prison staff, the Rockland Courier-Gazette quoted Warden Jeffrey Merrill as saying.

The prison plans to institute an “incentive-based” behavior-management “curriculum,” says Lord, but it had to wait until this fiscal year (which began July 1) to institute it and other reforms, since there was no money in the budget.

Even in this fiscal year, Lord says, guards must be paid overtime in the recently opened Supermax pod because the Legislature hasn’t authorized new permanent guard positions.

Lord says the state police will conduct “a full review” of Rideout’s death. It may be completed as early as Friday, October 13.

“We’re not taking it lightly,” she says.

How could a suicide take place in a maximum-security facility?

“That’s one of the reviews we will be doing,” she replies.

According to news reports, there have been three suicides at the prison in the last seven years, including Rideout’s, all in the Supermax or its adjacent psychiatric wing.

Rideout was found around 11:30 pm during regular half-hour guard rounds, according to the Courier-Gazette, quoting Merrill, who said resuscitation was attempted. Ryan was serving a 17-month term for burglary. His last known address outside the prison was in Presque Isle.

Ray Luc Levasseur, of Brunswick, a political activist who spent years in federal supermaxes after being convicted of bombing corporate offices around the Northeast, says of supermax settings and suicide: “Everything I saw showed that the sensory deprivation and isolation simply intensify any mental health issues [prisoners] have.”

  Topics: This Just In , Health and Fitness, Criminal Sentencing and Punishment, Mental Health,  More more >
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