Convicted Former NFL Player’s Suicide Draws Attention to Prisons

Sparks questions on how mental health is handled within prison

By Claire Nunez
Opinions Co-Editor

Since the early 2000s, the U.S. prison system has had a steady increase in inmate suicides. The Department of Justice released data from 2013 that shows that between a third and two-fifths of prison deaths are from suicide.  On Wednesday morning, former NFL player, Aaron Hernandez hung himself in his prison cell in Massachusetts. Prison suicides are not often publicized, and to many, the news was a shock.

Hernandez was a tight end for the New England Patriots, playing for the winning team from 2010 to 2012 after being drafted from the University of Florida. Hernandez had a promising career in football, but he had always had trouble with fights and the law.

In 2012, Hernandez was accused of killing Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu, and Safiro Teixeira Furtado as they were sitting in their car one evening in Boston. Hernandez was not found guilty of homicide, but he was prosecuted for the unlawful holding of a handgun. Hernandez had a few more run-ins with the law, but he was convicted of the murder of his friend, Odin Lloyd. He was found guilty in April 2015 of first-degree murder and of the unlawful holding of guns and ammunition.

Hernandez was sentenced to life without parole. He was held in at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts for about two years.  The Patriots canceled Hernandez’s merchandise and removed his name from their roster after the murder arrest. His name was removed from the stadiums at the University of Florida and he lost all of the prominences in the NFL that he came to enjoy.

The former NFL star was found hanging in his single cell in the maximum security correctional center he was kept at. Hernandez was pronounced dead at a hospital nearby the prison Wednesday morning. The authorities at  Souza-Baranowski were not initially aware of any possible suicide notes left by Hernandez. Days later, though, multiple handwritten notes were found. Aaron Hernandez apparently did not show any signs of being suicidal, otherwise he would have been sent to a mental health facility, according to Christopher Fallon, the Department of Correction spokesman.

Suicide is currently the tenth largest cause of death for people in the United States, but in prisons and correctional facilities, it becomes the third largest cause. Heart disease is considered the number one killer of people in America, but in prisons, suicide rates are higher than both the rate of Heart Disease and AIDS-related deaths (not combined). AIDS rates in prisons were relatively high and as of 2013, were down 30%. Death due to heart disease has remained at about 30% while suicide rates in prisons have jumped to a mid-40% in recent years.

We rarely see anything about prison suicides in the news. Hernandez’s death was the first time I have seen anyone say anything about prison suicide. There is currently a lot of activism to change the way correctional facilities handle treatment of inmates as well as reacclimating inmates to the free world. All over the country, different non-profits and activist groups work to change different aspects of prisons. The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives has been working to better train correctional facility staff to be more equipped to know when prisoners are facing mental health problems. The way suicide in prison is handled is extraordinarily important considering that these institutions are intended to “correct” behavior. Suicide is not an answer for anything and if we want to get criminals back into society, we have to pay more attention to their mental health and treat them as humans.

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