If Suicidal Prisoners Should “Ask for Help,” Stop Taking Away Our Phones

    The National Suicide Prevention Hotline posters showed up around 2018, when the outside world began to notice the uptick in suicides among those of us incarcerated by the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). Personally, I can’t think of a suicide intervention more depressing than the prospect of dialing a generic free-world hotline from a prison wall phone. But I don’t blame the posters for the 150-plus documented suicide deaths among GDC prisoners since they appeared. 

    If taking the suggestion to call the hotline at face value, the first issue would be that suicide deaths frequently occur in solitary confinement, where we have no access to prison phones.

    The second would be that prisoners are already wary of voicing anything with the faint whiff of suicidal ideation to staff—are they going to be comfortable punching in their GDC identification number to describe those thoughts in detail on a recorded call? GDC did not respond to Filter’s request for comment about usage of facility phones to call the hotlines.

    “Call the suicide hotline? [Getting shanked] is a better option.”

    The phrase “Don’t be afraid to ask for help” is irritating in the free world, but especially vexing in here. 

    “Call the suicide hotline?” Al*, who has spent most of his life incarcerated in GDC facilities, asked Filter. “What for? So I can lose my property and sit in a paper gown in the hole, freezing? Fuck that. [Getting shanked] is a better option than increasing the misery.”

    Once someone’s demonstrated any behaviors that indicate risk of self-harm, per GDC policy they’ll be put on Suicide Precautions status and whisked off to solitary confinement for mental health observation. They will be observed shivering in a paper gown and eating “finger foods,” since they can’t be trusted to wear clothes and eat off a tray, until whenever GDC decides to return them to the same environment that prompted thoughts of suicide before. Hopefully they’re feeling better. 

    “I do not want to talk to some far-away counselor about the shitty day I’m having,” Burt* told Filter. “I want to talk to relatives and friends, hear about normal lives. And make plans for returning home.” He, too, has spent most of his life in prison.



    Talking to a loved one would do more to ease the suffering of many in here, but GDC makes it nearly impossible to do so. The suicide hotline number is toll-free—though you wouldn’t necessarily know that without reading the very last pages of our Inmate Handbook—but regular numbers sure aren’t.

    In a prison system where the currency used in many facilities is Ramen soups (two soups = $1) the wall phones use USD. You need actual legal tender on your account to make calls at 13 cents per minute. But GDC pays us $0 for the jobs we go to each day, and prison phone operator Securus doesn’t accept soups. Even if you can afford the call, you might die waiting to get the number approved

    A contraband cell phone, however, can be rented for an hour by anyone who can scrounge a couple of soups together. Even the poorest among us can often get a sympathy call home in exchange for making a bed.

    So of course, as the suicide toll climbs higher and higher, GDC invests more and more into cell phone crackdowns



    What does GDC expect us to live for?

    “Yard call would be nice,” Al said. “You know we went a month and a half without yard call recently? I think I’ve been able to just go chill on the yard twice this year so far. It’s depressing. Walking to and from chow isn’t a substitute.”

    Between 2015 and 2020, suicide accounted for nearly one in 10 deaths in GDC facilities. The exact number of suicide deaths inside state prisons each year is unknown. The Department of Justice used to publish annual in-custody death reports, but doesn’t anymore. Corrections departments are meant to report the data too, but rarely bother.

    “I wake every morning and the first decision I make is: Will I kill myself today?” Al said. “I’m tired. I gave up on parole years ago. I don’t know what happened but no one in my situation is getting released anymore.” 

    Al has the sort of disciplinary record the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles supposedly likes to see, has spent well over half his life inside GDC facilities, and by all accounts should have gone home a very long time ago. Like so many others who remain.

    “I settled in hoping to live out my days as best I can,” Al said. “[But] there’s nothing left to hope for. One way or another, I will die soon.” 

    Looking around, I see a prison full of old men. Many have served 20, 30, 40-plus years, each day fighting off the urge to end it all by holding on to the hope that one day they might go home, and it hasn’t gotten them anything but older.



    *Names have been changed to protect sources.

    Top image and inset image of contraband searches via Georgia Department of Corrections. Inset graphic of poster displayed inside GDC facility via Anonymous.

    • Phil Garner is a pseudonym for a Georgia Tech alumnus and retired mechanical engineer who decided to match a life of written reports with writing on topics he actually cares about. He’s serving a life sentence in Georgia.

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