By Steve Mocarsky firstname.lastname@example.orgStaff Writer Amid allegations that prison guards facilitated their son’s suicide last month, the family of convicted murderer Matthew Bullock had their attorney open their son’s estate – a step necessary for filing a lawsuit.
Attorney Shelley Centini, who represented Bullock in his murder trial, said she will “leave no stone unturned” when investigating the events that preceded his death on Aug. 24 at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas. “I’m looking forward to the day when I get to hear from the guards who tortured him, what their defense will be for assisting in ending Matthew’s life,” Centini said. Centini said she has been speaking with Bret Grote, an investigator with the Human Rights Coalition Fed Up! Chapter – a prisoner advocacy group. She said Grote has compiled “quite a bit of information, not only about Matthew’s suicide, but about other problems at the prison as well.” “Frankly, it’s shocking,” Centini said of what she learned from Grote. Last week, Grote asked the state Attorney General’s Office to compel the state police to investigate alleged widespread prisoner abuse at SCI Dallas. He forwarded to state officials a list of 85 summaries of alleged abuse submitted by 52 inmates at the prison. A spokesman for the office said the information was being reviewed. Earlier this month, Grote announced that “credible” prisoners confined in cells near Bullock’s reported to the coalition that Bullock’s suicide “was facilitated and encouraged” by guards in the prison’s Restricted Housing Unit, where Bullock was being held. Grote said that although Bullock was a known suicide risk, he was moved from a video-camera-equipped cell to one without suicide monitoring capabilities. On the morning of his death, guards on the Restricted Housing Unit began kicking his door and encouraging him to kill himself, according to prisoner reports. One prisoner’s report stated, “The guards … were kicking on his door saying, ‘Kill yourself you little p----.’ ” Grote said that prisoners also reported that prison staff failed to place Bullock on suicide monitoring watch after Bullock stated his intention to commit suicide, and hours later, he was found by the next shift of guards, hanging dead from his cell door. A Luzerne County jury found Bullock guilty of third-degree murder but mentally ill in the strangulation death of 33-year-old Lisa Hargrave in the couple’s Wilkes-Barre apartment on Jan. 1, 2003. Hargrave was 22 weeks pregnant. The jury also found Bullock guilty of voluntary manslaughter but mentally ill for the fetus’ death. Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph Augello in November 2003 ordered Bullock to serve 20 to 60 years at a secure mental-health facility. On July 15, Bullock was moved from a state mental health facility at SCI Waymart to SCI Dallas, which is not a mental health facility and is not equipped to provide substantial mental health care, Grote said. Before that transfer, Bullock had been transferred several times between SCI Waymart and other state prisons, including SCI Huntington, SCI Graterford and SCI Dallas, said Department of Corrections Deputy Press Secretary Sue Bensinger. Speaking generally about transfers of prisoners with mental health issues, Bensinger said prisoners in need of inpatient care are housed at SCI Waymart. If an evaluation determines that outpatient care is appropriate, a prisoner will be transferred to another prison, all of which have staff trained in mental health and recognizing signs of and tendencies toward suicide. Bensinger said Bullock had not been exhibiting signs of suicide when he was transferred out of Waymart or when he was transferred to a cell with no video camera at SCI Dallas. She said internal and state police investigations of Bullock’s suicide found no wrongdoing. Bensinger also said that Grote had provided prisoner allegations of abuse to the department previously and they were found to be meritless. Centini said it was “extremely clear, if you look at the sentencing transcript, that (Augello) wanted (Bullock) in a secure mental health facility. “I don’t understand; if SCI Waymart is a secure mental health facility, why does he spend only a few months of his entire period of incarceration there?” Bensinger said the department must follow guidelines established by the state departments of health and public welfare when considering what kind of treatment and placement is appropriate for prisoners. She said sentencing judges can make recommendations on prisoner placement, but federal case law backs up the department’s right to place prisoners at its discretion. Attorney Al Flora, Bullock’s lead counsel at his trial, said the prosecution initially sought the death penalty for Bullock. But after learning of Bullock’s extensive mental health history, the prosecutor changed his mind and decided not to seek death, Flora said. Centini said Bullock had a multitude of psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia. He had attempted suicide multiple times before his incarceration and, according to his family, at least six times while he was incarcerated, she said. Centini said she is in a “fact-gathering stage,” but she can’t subpoena records from the prison or state police without filing a lawsuit. She said it will be up the Bullock family to decide whether to have her file a wrongful death lawsuit. Robert Bullock, Matthew’s father, declined comment for this story. Flora said that “from a practical standpoint, regardless of what is done, you’re always going to have suicides in prison. “But just by knowing (Bullock’s) mental health history and how extensive his psychiatric problems were, to suggest he didn’t pose a suicide risk when he went back to Dallas, I think for somebody to make that argument would be pretty frivolous,” Flora said.
Steve Mocarsky, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7311.