‘Very concerned.’ State prisons in Centre County rank high for inmate suicides since 2018

The two state prisons in Centre County lapped most of the field in a grim milestone during the past half-decade, ranking first and third in the number of inmates who died by suicide.

Eleven men incarcerated at Rockview state prison killed themselves since 2018, while eight men took their lives at Benner Township state prison, information provided by the state Department of Corrections showed.

About one-fourth of all suicides in Pennsylvania’s nearly two dozen prisons since that time happened at those two facilities.

Four inmates have died by suicide this year at Rockview, already marking the highest tally at the prison in a single year since 2011. Each death was reported in a span of seven weeks.

Robert D. Williams, 40, of Lancaster County died March 3. Andrew Yuhas, 61, of Luzerne County, died three days later. Jamie E. Houseknecht, 43, died April 1 and Richard Woods, 46, died April 20.

Ten prisons — all of which opened no later than 2004 — reported fewer than four suicides between 1971 and 2022, a span of 51 years.

“It scares the heck out of me,” said Elizabeth Young, whose son is serving time at Rockview for robbery and simple assault convictions and has struggled with mental health issues. “I’m constantly wondering when I’m going to get a phone call.”

Assaults and staffing concerns

Rockview is one of the oldest prisons run by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; it opened in 1915. Benner Township, meanwhile, is one of the newest. It opened in 2013.

At nearly 2,000 men incarcerated at Rockview as of the end of April and nearly 1,800 at Benner Township, both are just slightly above the average population of the state’s all-male prisons, which is about 1,670.

Each are medium-security prisons. The average age of their inmate population is in line with the rest of the state prison system.

Deaths at the prisons aren’t the only things that have drawn concern. At least three staff members at the two prisons were assaulted by inmates this year, state police at Rockview wrote in a March statement. Two were treated for minor injuries.

Another corrections officer at Rockview was treated for serious injuries. Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association President John Eckenrode in March described the assaults as “appalling” and preventable. The union has advocated for the DOC to change its staffing levels, as well as revise some of its policies.

State Rep. Paul Takac, D-College Township, said he is “very concerned” about the spate of suicides and assaults at the prisons, both of which are in his district.

Takac said he plans to meet with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and the union that represents thousands of corrections officers. Increasing funding to fill vacancies in the prison system were among his proposals.

“I believe that justice does require that we ensure the health and safety of everyone in the corrections system from inmates to officers and staff. Everyone,” Takac said. “I don’t believe our responsibility to protect the lives of inmates ends at the front door.”

When asked about the increase in suicides, Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer director John Hargreaves pointed to a concern about a lack of in-person visits between inmates and their families.

Two of the four deaths reported this year at Rockview remain under investigation by the Centre County Coroner’s Office. Chief Deputy Coroner Judy Pleskonko said Wednesday it could be another four weeks until a cause and manner of death is established. The DOC listed each death as a suicide in information provided to the Centre Daily Times.

Pennsylvania Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson County, worked in the state Department of Corrections for 16 years. He previously worked with Benner Township state prison Superintendent Morris Houser and expressed confidence in him.

“We’ve got a lot of psychological issues that are going on in this country, especially around COVID,” Dush said. “We do have some issues that I think the Department of Corrections could be working on. Part of it has to do with staffing; I’m certain of that.”

Most of those who died by suicide in state prisons since 2007 had a history of substance abuse, were being treated with psychotropic drugs and were receiving treatment from a mental health professional, according to a 2022 presentation from the DOC.

Nearly all inmates who died by suicide since 2000 were alone in their cell at the time of their death, according to the presentation.

Inmates rarely die by suicide under close or constant observation by DOC staff and when their cellmate is present. The report recommended two inmates be housed in a cell together if at all possible.

“Our primary tool of mitigating risk of dangerousness to others is single cell placement, which appears to unintentionally and inadvertently contribute to increased risk of suicide,” the DOC’s psychology office director wrote in the presentation.

The state Department of Corrections has a “multi-layered approach” to prevent and address suicide and self-harm of inmates, spokeswoman Maria Bivens wrote in an April email.

Staff participate in annual training to help them recognize warning signs of a person in crisis and how to properly respond to attempted suicide, Bivens wrote.

The DOC also initiates a comprehensive clinical and administrative review after an inmate takes their own life. Takac is among those hoping there’s less and less of a need for those reviews.

“Suicides and attempted suicides,” Takac said. “Those should be rare occurrences.”

Suicide prevention resources

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988 or chat at 988Lifeline.org

Center for Community Resources: Visit 2100 E. College Ave., 24/7

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