About a month ago, friends of Roland Alston — a lifer known around Graterford Prison as "Pudgy" — grew concerned.
"He expressed feelings of hopelessness and despair," another lifer, Aaron Fox, wrote in a letter addressed to advocates and obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News. "The day before he was found dead, he went to a [corrections officer] and expressed his despondency, and broke down in tears. He had him sent to the psych."
Alston was interviewed, then returned back to the general population, according to Fox. The next morning, March 28, he was found hanging in his cell.
That made Alston, 58, the fifth inmate in less than three months to take his life at Graterford. It's a startling figure given that the entire Department of Corrections system averages seven suicides statewide each year.
One of them, Christopher Gilchrist, was on suicide watch at the time of his death, according to his mother and inmates, who have questioned why he had access to a sheet he used to hang himself and how the guards required to monitor observation cells were unable to intervene.
The Department of Corrections would not comment on the individual cases, nor on whether the departure of Graterford's superintendent, Cynthia Link, in March was connected to any of the deaths.
"Obviously, when we have a suicide cluster, it is a major concern," Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement released after Alston's death. "Although this one likely has a different root cause, it is concerning nonetheless.
"To that end, we have engaged Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on jail suicide prevention, to quickly lead a full review of all policy, procedures and practices, as well as a full review of each case."
Alston had been incarcerated since 1983 for his role in the robbery-murder of a Levittown pharmacist.
Angus Love of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project suggested that one cause for inmates' distress is the pending closure of Graterford and move to the new State Correctional Institution Phoenix. In particular, lifers have dreaded the impending loss of one of their few and longstanding perks, single-occupant cells. They'll be required to take cellmates at Phoenix.
"We have so many lifers, and for lifers, disruption is very upsetting. Some of these folks are kind of on the verge anyway, given their plight, so it pushes people over the edge," Love said.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden said Graterford has brought in additional, temporary psychology staff "to assist in the comprehensive assessment of each newly committed inmate, as well as allow for additional mental-health staff coverage for current long-term inmates – particularly those on the mental-health treatment roster – who are facing a move to a new facility."
Alston was the only lifer among the five who committed suicide at Graterford this year. Several were new arrivals. One, Gilchrist, had a history of mental health issues and had been in and out of the prison's treatment unit, according to his mother, Bobbie London.
Not long before he died, she received a letter from him stating he'd rather die than continue to live in such a condition.
"I called up there. I said, he's not well. He's got suicidal ideation," she said. "I was told, 'We take this seriously. We'll look into it.'"
Nancy Winkler, a lawyer representing the family, said she is investigating and is contemplating filing both a civil rights action and a medical negligence action against the Department of Corrections.
Fox, the lifer, described the mood at Graterford as grim despite the department's interventions.