By Scott Malone and Gina Cherelus
BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The prison suicide of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez stunned football fans on Wednesday but for inmate advocates it was the latest evidence of a deep-rooted problem - the high rate of prison suicides in the state.
"Once every two or three months a prisoner commits suicide in Massachusetts," said state Senator James Eldridge, whose district includes two prisons including the one where Hernandez died.
Massachusetts prisons have twice as many inmate suicides as the national average, according to federal data. Inmate advocates attribute the problem to limited mental health care, a hostile culture and heavy reliance on solitary confinement.
Thirty out of every 100,000 inmates in Massachusetts state prisons died by suicide from 2000 through 2013, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
That is almost double the national rate of 16 suicides per 100,000 inmates, with suicide accounting for about one in 10 Massachusetts inmate deaths. Suicide rates were significantly higher in local jails, representing 46 of every 100,000 inmates.
"We are among the highest on suicide rates, both among prisoners and corrections officers and that really speaks to a toxic culture in the prisons," said Eldridge.
Eldridge has submitted a bill calling for the state to form a special commission to study why so many inmates commit suicide, with the aim of developing ways to reduce the number of deaths.
The former National Football League tight end hanged himself on Wednesday in a prison cell, according to prison officials. He was serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of an acquaintance.
Hernandez had been in custody since police first led him in handcuffs from his North Attleborough, Massachusetts, home in June 2013. He had been held in several state prisons.
Five days ago, a jury acquitted him of killing two men outside a Boston nightclub in 2012.
Massachusetts Department of Corrections officials did not respond to requests on Wednesday for more current figures on prisoner suicides. A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker referred questions back to the Corrections Department.
The state is one of the highest 10 in the United States for inmate suicides, Bureau of Justice Statistics data for 2000 through 2013 showed. The most were in Utah, where 42 per 100,000 killed themselves; the lowest in Alabama, where 5 out of 100,000 committed suicide. In federal prisons, 9 per 100,000 inmates ended their own lives.
Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts has long called on the state to report inmate suicides.
"I'm not sure why Massachusetts doesn't report them," said the group's executive director, Leslie Walker, who said some of the agency's clients had committed suicide while incarcerated.
The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center where Hernandez hung himself with a bed sheet is in Shirley, Massachusetts, about 35 miles (56 km) west of Boston. Another inmate hanged himself with a sheet there in 2010.
It was the site of a January riot in which prisoners used fire extinguishers and furniture to battle guards, and the place where defrocked Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan was murdered by another inmate in 2003 after being convicted of sexually abusing a boy.
In 2010, Massachusetts commissioned prison suicide expert Lindsay Hayes of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives to recommend ways to tackle the issue.
Hayes prepared a 22-point plan recommending more training for guards on how to recognize and handle potentially suicidal inmates, more state funding for mental health care for inmates and the use of more suicide-resistant cells with features like breakaway clothing hooks to prevent inmates from hanging themselves.
Hayes said in an e-mail that he was "confident that the agency and its health care provider will conduct comprehensive investigations into Mr. Hernandez's death."
Walker, of Prisoner Legal Services, said Massachusetts had redesigned cells but more was needed.
"We could use more mental health clinicians who can make sure how people like Mr. Hernandez are doing mentally," Walker said. "People get despondent. They are locked in cells 19 hours a day."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Toni Reinhold)