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Mother says she warned of son’s suicide, Georgia prison failed to act

Over four days in November 2014, a worried mother made several frantic calls to the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville to tell them she feared for her 19-year-old son’s mental health and physical safety.

Nicholas Baldwin had attempted suicide at least two times before and she sensed he was in that place again. He should be moved to an acute care mental facility, Debra Baldwin insisted.

On the fourth day, she learned her son had told a counselor that he had seen Satan and tried to do black magic that would “get him out of prison and make him rich.” Because the black magic didn’t work, Nicholas Baldwin told the counselor, he “has been to Hell.”

Baldwin begged for her son to be sent to an “acute care facility.” The counselor told him an “emergency” appointment had been set for five days off.

“The last thing I said to (the prison counselor) was ‘do not let my child hurt himself,’” Debra Baldwin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eighteen hours later, Nicholas Baldwin was found hanging with a bed sheet around his neck.

MORE: Georgia guards watched as inmate hanged self

RELATED: Jail video captures man’s 8-hour suicide struggle as noose hangs

He survived the suicide attempt, barely. Baldwin now spends all his days in a Georgia nursing home, his legs drawn up and his hands curling under. He follow those who come into his room but he cannot speak.

His mother blames the prison system, saying mistakes were made and guards were slow to respond. She’s filed a lawsuit saying the prison system has turned her son into a ward of the state who will need costly care for the rest of his life. Footing the bill for his care? Taxpayer-funded Medicaid.

Debra Baldwin’s case is the latest to allege that Georgia’s prison system botched its response to a suicide or attempted suicides. According to Baldwin’s lawsuit, officers waited for a video recorder. When it arrived, the battery was drained so they waited again for a second camera.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit.

“My son’s future has been stolen”

A video recording of events viewed by The AJC, shows little apparent urgency in the initial response. One guard climbs up on a top bunk, puts on gloves and removes the bed sheet noose to lower Nicholas Baldwin to waiting guards. It is only when they try to resuscitate him that the intensity kicks up, the video shows.

“They should not have stopped or waited for video equipment. That’s contrary to a medical emergency,” said Lindsay Hayes, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Mansfield, Mass., and an expert on prison suicides.

“You can stop and wait (for a camera) if it was a planned use of force. Not for a medical emergency. You don’t wait for a video camera and you don’t wait a battery.”

In February, The AJC reported on a similar case, this one at Smith State Prison. Prison guards there watched and waited outside Richard Tavera’s closed cell door as an officer fetched a video camera. Tavera died and his grieving mother filed a lawsuit.

Nicholas Baldwin, like Tavera, was assigned to a restrictive housing unit, where inmates spend most of their hours in their cells.

“It’s an abuse of humanity,” Debra Baldwin said about the “tier” program that her son was in.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports prison suicides — a leading cause of death among the incarcerated — are increasing after years of holding steady.

BJS reported last December that there were 2,260 inmate suicides in state and federal prisons between 2001 and 2014, the latest statistics available.

According to the state Department of Corrections, there were 123 suicide attempts in 2014, 78 in 2015, 99 in 2016 and 29 this year by May 1. There were five successful inmate suicides in 2014, eight in 2015 and 2016 and four in the first five months of this year.

Sometimes there is no warning — as in the case of former NFL player and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez who hanged himself in his cell last month. But with Nicholas Baldwin, his mother said there were many warnings and his suicide attempt could have been prevented.

Today, Nicholas Baldwin weighs 107 pounds, up from the 87 pounds recorded from two years ago. His arms and legs are locked in position.

“He lives in pain because that puts strain on his limbs,” his mother said.

“My son’s future has been stolen and … our entire family’s future (has) been altered,” Debra Baldwin said.

“Nick will never finish his education, hold a job, create a family of his own or have the opportunity to be a productive member of society. He cannot attend big family events, which he always loved. …We cannot hear his voice, feel his hugs or hear the laughter that he was best known for. His brother will not have Nicholas stand beside him at his wedding. I will never be a grandmother to his red-headed children.”

Conversations with Satan

Nicholas Baldwin was 17 when he entered the Georgia prison system on a 10-year sentence for a Gwinnett County armed robbery, a serious crime that was at the same time “extremely foolish,” his mother said.

He had met a girl in May 2012 while he was in the hospital being weaned off medication he received when he was treated for an overdose.

The next month, the girl reportedly told the then-16-year-old that she was pregnant with his babies.

“I told him it wasn’t possible. I could not talk sense into him,” Debra Baldwin said.

Nicholas Baldwin and a friend robbed a Lawrenceville Walgreen’s because he needed money because “he was about to have three children,” he told police according to court records. Baldwin and his co-defendant, Jaleel Elkins, said they planned to invest the cash they stole and then return the stolen money, anonymously, after they saw a profit.

“He (Elkins) wanted to help me because this girl told me this lie that she was having kids,” Baldwin said in court. “I wasn’t in the right state of mind because I wasn’t taking my medicine like I should have been, and I flipped out. And I thought it would be a good idea to do this. But it wasn’t.”

He pleaded guilty on Valentine’s Day in 2013.

Debra Baldwin noticed a change in her son in 2014; he began refusing to come to the visitation room when family members would drive down from the metro area. In the fall of 2014, he sent word to his mother that he didn’t want to see her or his grandfather because he “had all the family he needed” in prison.

Debra Baldwin made several calls to the prison to tell them she feared her son’s mental health had deteriorated and he needed immediate attention.

She says that one prison staffer told her they “were in the middle of an audit and someone would get back in a few days.”

Two days later, another prison official called.

“I reiterated my concerns and made the same request again,” Debra Baldwin said. “She said ‘I’ll be back in touch with you.’”

On Nov. 6, 2014, Debra Baldwin made several more calls to the prison and was told her son was scheduled to be evaluated early the next week.

I said ‘I want you to have him moved to a mental health facility and have him evaluated,’ ” Debra Baldwin said.

That same day he told a prison counselor about conversations he said he had with Satan.

“If you have an inmate threatening suicide or engaging in self-harm, the first thing you do is keep him safe … until such time mental health staff can come and do a suicide risk evaluation,” said Hayes, the expert on prison suicides. “But if his auditory and visual hallucinations were not directed at self-harm… that could be perceived as not being an emergency.”

The next day, the warden at GSP told Debra Baldiwn that her son had tried to hang himself and he was in a Savannah hospital ICU.

A few weeks later, Nicholas Baldwin was moved to a private “forensic, long-term” acute care facility in South Carolina because there was nothing more the hospital could do for him. The state was unable to break down what taxpayers paid for multiple hospitalizations in Savannah and in Columbia, S.C., but the estimated cost for the almost three months at CorrectCare was $500 a day plus the additional cost of four more hospitalization in the intensive care unit of a Columbia, S.C., hospital.

Nicholas Baldwin was granted a medical reprieve, and on Feb. 22, 2015, he was moved to a private nursing home.

“We are extremely blessed to have Nicholas with us, despite his serious medical condition,” Debra Baldwin said. “Many families with children in the corrections system never get the opportunity to see their child alive again. They get a call and their child comes home in a box. Nick is here for a reason.”

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