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A Teenager’s Suicide, Alone in a Jail Cell

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide drew attention to the lack of monitoring for at-risk prisoners, even when they are high profile. Professor Lisa Armstrong (Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism) looked at the life and death of another inmate whose suicide drew far less attention: 18-year-old Mariam Abdullah, who “spent much of the final two years of her life in solitary confinement” in Arizona.

Abdullah was kept alone in a cell the size of a parking spot, 23 hours a day, because of her “unruly behavior” and to “prevent her from self-harm.” But rather than preventing suicide, Armstrong says, isolation is actually considered to be a contributing factor in many jail suicides. Armstrong’s powerful story, published in the Huffington Post, is titled “When Solitary Confinement Is A Death Sentence.”

Abdullah moved to Tucson at age 9 with her mother and three siblings after her father was killed in their native Iraq. In middle school, Armstrong reported, she saw herself like this: “I always run and fight, assault, bully, steal, do drugs, have sex, go to jail to forget about all the pain. I have so much hurt and no one can see.” She was sent to group homes and a juvenile detention center; even there, she was repeatedly placed in isolation for being “a danger to herself and others.” She ended up in jail, charged as an adult, for helping her boyfriend lure a robbery victim.

Armstrong examined 200 documents, videos, and photos to figure out what happened to Abdullah in jail. The cache included prison medical records that classified her as “seriously mentally ill” with mood disorder, bipolar disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Abdullah also reported experiencing hallucinations, attempted suicide 15 times, and fought when officers took her to solitary. Her encounters with mental health staff were brief. After another inmate died by suicide, Abdullah wrote: “I heard about the women that killed her self. … to be honest with you being here makes me feel like that but I just haven’t acted on it yet.”

Eventually she did act on it, killing herself on July 19, 2016, shortly after her 18th birthday. Abdullah’s mother told a lawyer she thought her daughter had been murdered. “But the longer I talked to her, I think it was more metaphorical,” the lawyer, Corene Kendrick, told Armstrong. Abdullah, Kendrick added, was “murdered” by “being bullied and not protected and not having adequate mental health care.”

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When Solitary Confinement Is A Death Sentence
Huffington Post, 2019

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Lisa Armstrong (Associate Professor, Journalism) | Profile 1

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Graduate School of Journalism