Inside the challenges facing the prison that held Aaron Hernandez

Leslie Walker, the executive director at Prisoners' Legal Service of Massachusetts, joined SI Now over the phone to discuss the living conditions and drug issues at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center where Aaron Hernandez was held until his death.

Hernandez’s death was ruled a suicide, after the former Patriots tight end was found hanged in his cell on Wednesday. He was 27. Last Friday, Hernandez was found not guilty in a double murder trial of two men, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, in a July 2012 drive-by shooting. He was already serving a life sentence without parole in a Massachusetts prison after he was found guilty of the 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd.

The center is the only maximum security prison in Massachusetts, with around 1,100 men held in cells for around 19 hours a day, some more than that in solitary confinement. “It’s a great deal of time spent alone,” Walker said. “There’s very little programming at the prison, there are very few jobs, there’s just not a lot to do.”

Walker also discussed the issue of drug use in the prison. Prisoners' Legal Service of Massachusetts is an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights and lawful treatment while incarcerated.

“It’s a concern to the Dept. of Corrections,” she said. “They’ve introduced drug-sniffing dogs. There are some drugs that apparently the chemical formula can be changed fairly easily and regularly, K-2 in particular, which makes it difficult for the dogs to be trained. There’s a fair amount of Suboxone in the facility as well. It’s gotten worse—as has the opioid crisis—it’s gotten worse in the last few years and contributed significantly to the level of violence at the prison, which is commonplace. Fights are frequent.”

Walker also shared her opinion on how he was handled by prison staff, and what could have been done better.

“Personally I think he should have been more closely monitored by the mental health staff in the prison,” Walker explained. “I don’t think it’s corrections officers’ duty—they’re certainly not trained, they’re not clinicians—to look for signs of depression or other possibilities for self-harm. But even the monitoring has to be careful because it’s very easy to walk by someone’s cell and say “How you doing?” and they’ll say “O.K.”, or “fine” or “I’ll be O.K.”

“But what I wish had happened to Mr. Hernandez and to others convicted of first-degree murder is some intensive counseling around coping with the fact that you are likely to spend the rest of your natural life in prison. So I don’t know that that happened, but I seriously doubt it. It’s not typically part of the programming. If you come in with a diagnosed mental illness or you clearly have a mental illness, you ask to see Mental Health. Sometimes you’re denied, they think you’re faking. So the thought of having someone he could talk to on a regular basis to cope with this issue could have been very helpful to him.”

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