AL prison suicide means heartbreak and unanswered questions for family

Matt Holmes is 14th suicide in Alabama prisons in 14 months

AL prison suicide means heartbreak and unanswered questions for family
Matt Holmes committed suicide at Limestone Correctional Facility on February 14, 2019.

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Matthew Blake Holmes was about to turn 29 years old when he took his own life. His mother, Theresa Holmes, thought her son had been doing well at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, where he was serving a 22-year sentence for a 2010 robbery conviction in Lee County.

Matt Holmes with his mom, dad and younger brother at a prison visit.
Matt Holmes with his mom, dad and younger brother at a prison visit. ((Source: Theresa Holmes))

Holmes had been at Limestone for four years and recently graduated from trade school, earning an electrical tech degree from Calhoun County Community College. He'd made the Dean's List, his mom said, and was enrolled in a special course through the University of North Alabama. He expected to be considered for parole next year.

“He had come a long way,” Holmes said. “He was doing great. I have no clue what happened. The prison will not tell me anything.”

Theresa Holmes first learned of her son’s suicide on February 15, the day after it happened, but prison officials did not break the news. Holmes said word of her son’s death came through family members of other prisoners, so she called the prison for confirmation.

"When I finally got in touch with the warden after they phone bounced me from one person to another for over an hour, he just bluntly said, 'all I can tell you is your son took his own life last night.' Not, 'I'm sorry to tell you,' or 'I hate to tell you,' nothing," Holmes said through sobs. "I asked him how it happened and he said he couldn't tell me nothing. Everybody at that prison was so cold and disrespectful to me, it's unbelievable."

Holmes said her own sources have told her Matt ended his life in a segregation cell, or solitary confinement. She doesn't know why he'd been placed there or for how long, but her sources say he'd been on suicide watch a few days before he died, but was then released back into segregation.

Matt & his father, Wesley Holmes Sr.
Matt & his father, Wesley Holmes Sr. ((Source: Theresa Holmes))

“I’m being told that he kicked the door for over thirty minutes, begging them to come help him before he took his own life,” Holmes said. “He tried to tell me before that them [sic] people in there do not treat them right.”

Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) confirmed Holmes suicide on February 27. WBRC first requested confirmation on February 15, and a spokesperson responded via email with “the inmates death is under investigation.” Holmes death marks the 14th suicide in 14 months in Alabama prisons, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has called the recent spike in suicides an emergency. The law firm is representing prisoners with mental illness in a class action lawsuit over mental healthcare, in which a federal judge ruled against ADOC in 2017, calling the care “horrendously inadequate.”

Suicides, particularly in segregation cells, have been a central issue in the litigation. In January, SPLC filed a preliminary injunction against ADOC, seeking to end the placement of high-risk prisoners in segregation, in light of the recent suicides. That matter will be heard in federal court March 12. In the meantime, Maria Morris, managing attorney with SPLC, said ADOC continues to place people who have serious mental illness in segregation, continues to release people directly from suicide watch into segregation and fails to follow its own policies on monitoring people in segregation.

"They should be doing everything they can to stop this," said Morris. "It is maddening that the Department of Corrections (ADOC) has not taken the necessary steps to address this emergency happening in their facilities."

An ADOC Spokesperson emailed WBRC the following response regarding allegations that incarcerated people with mental illness are still being placed in segregation.

ADOC continues to house inmates in a manner that ensures the safety and security of each institution, ADOC staff and the inmates in the department's custody.

The Alabama Department of Corrections, like other correctional systems across the country, assigns inmates with mental illnesses to restrictive housing units when necessary for his or her specific care and wellbeing. As Plaintiffs’ expert testified, it is appropriate to house inmates with “serious mental illnesses” in restrictive housing when “exigent circumstances” exist. The ADOC routinely monitors inmates with “serious mental illnesses” who have been assigned to restrictive housing to ensure proper placement within the ADOC system by following a comprehensive approach to the delivery of needed care of the individual and for the safety of the institution.

Theresa and Matt Holmes
Theresa and Matt Holmes ((Source: Theresa Holmes))

Theresa Holmes talked to Matt five days before he died and had a sense that something was wrong.

“He told me six times that he loved me and I asked him if he was OK and he said yes,” she said. “But something in me said something wasn’t right.”

A Holmes family photo. Matt is far right, with his hand on Theresa's shoulder.
A Holmes family photo. Matt is far right, with his hand on Theresa's shoulder. ((Source: Theresa Holmes))

Matt had spent time in segregation before for fighting. Holmes said the last time he was held in solitary for 13 months. She said he told her he was depressed, and had been on suicide watch before, but she’s not sure if the prison provided any treatment or counseling.

“I know this much, if somebody sits in isolation for 13 months, they’re going to need some type of counseling,” she said.

Matt first got in trouble at age 13 for skipping school and breaking into a house. Holmes said she raised Matt and his three brothers to do the right thing, but he was just a kid who got mixed up on the street.

He was first sent to an adult prison at age 16 and tried to turn his life around.

“He was a kid and he made some mistakes and it seems like no matter what he done behind that fence to try to prove to them that he was growing up, they didn’t care,” she said.

The Holmes family had a memorial service for Matt on February 22 and his remains were cremated.

"He is now at home, where he needs to be," his mom said.

She is working on hiring an attorney and hoping to learn more about her son's final days and whether the prison could have done anything to stop him from taking his own life.

“He was loved and they let this happen,” she said. “His mama will make a difference.”

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