Thirty days. That’s one measly month.

For most adults, it flies by.

But for Guy Duffy, staring down a 30-day sentence in the Essex County Jail two summers ago, the clock slowed to a crawl.

Duffy suffered from depression, his wife Laurie said, and he was a chain-smoker with high blood pressure. He had never been to jail before, a factor known to put inmates at high risk of suicide, especially during their first two weeks behind bars.

A black chain-link fence stretches across a snowy field in front of a large gray jail building.
FILE — The fence outside Essex County Jail is seen in winter.
Jenifer McKim GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting

“He was scared. That was his first time dealing with this,” said Laurie Duffy, choking back tears. “He wasn’t feeling good. He was just so scared, the poor guy.”

On July 14, 2015, Guy Duffy was found dead in his cell. He had killed himself.

Duffy is one of 42 suicides in county jails in Massachusetts since 2012, compared with 18 inmate suicides in state-run prisons, including therecent suicide of former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez. County jails and state prisons each house roughly 10,000 inmates across the system, but counties have seen more than double the inmate suicides.

Most county jail inmates are sentenced for low-level offenses like larceny, assault and drug possession. State prisons hold inmates serving time for more serious crimes like murder, rape and drug trafficking.

Duffy was 54 years old when he was convicted of animal cruelty. A judge in Lawrence District Court decided Duffy had waited far too long before taking his 16-year-old cat to get euthanized when an infection began eating away at its face.

Given a baggy jumpsuit and shoes that were four sizes too big, the former sign-maker who loved motorcycles and fishing joined 1,066 other inmates inside the drab concrete buildings. Sixteen-foot tall chain-link fences topped with razor wire ring the complex, which sits on a hill in Middleton.

Laurie said she tried to reach her husband for six days on a jail phone before actually talking with him. One call costs five dollars and automatically cuts off at 30 minutes. As Duffy struggled with what experts call the “shock of confinement,” those calls became more panicked.

“I’m basically calling you to tell you goodbye, ‘cause I’m not gonna make it,” Duffy told his wife in one of those calls – all of them tape-recorded by the jail.

His wife pleaded with him to pull it together, but Duffy crumbled.

“I can’t pull it together. There’s something wrong with me. I’m cold. I’m sweating. They don’t care. I’m breaking down. I’m having a nervous breakdown,” he said.

Duffy also poured out his anguish to social workers employed by the jail’s for-profit mental health provider, NaphCare, a multimillion dollar company based in Alabama.

He told them he couldn’t eat. He was losing weight. He was hallucinating, trembling and sweating. All of this was documented in his records.

Jail officers and mental health counselors moved Duffy nine times -- from the infirmary, to general population, to suicide watch and a solitary cell, known as segregation, which is used to discipline inmates or protect them from others.

After her husband’s sixth move, Laurie got a voice message from the jail that gave her hope.

“Several of the case workers did meet with him,” a jail official told Laurie. “He's definitely safe. he's in a good place.”

Four days later, in the middle of the night, Duffy became paranoid. He thought people were trying to kill him, according to reports from jail officers.

Duffy had already told a social worker that he didn’t like being in a cell by himself, where he was left alone with his thoughts. But that’s right where the jail ultimately put him -- in a segregated cell, with bed sheets and a laundry hook.

“It shouldn't have happened. He was failed at every level, every friggin’ level,” said Laurie Duffy.

Laurie Duffy’s outrage and grief elicited no easy answers from Essex County Jail officials. Their own review of Duffy’s suicide left open the question as to why he was moved into a segregated cell with the means to hang himself.

Duffy was one of four suicides in 2015 at the Middleton jail, and his death is part of the trend pushing jail inmate suicide rates in Massachusetts 56 percent higher than the national rate for jails.

The explanation from newly elected Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger is a common refrain from sheriffs: County jails have become de-facto mental hospitals.

“There’s a huge increase in the number of mental health clients that are involved with the criminal justice system,” said Coppinger. “A majority of our inmates here either have substance abuse issues or mental health issues or a combination of both.”

The argument is that inmates arrive in county jails right off the streets -- often with serious opioid addictions and troubled lives.

County jails are also processing many more inmates per year than state prisons.

“We have 6,200 guys per year come through our door. One of the hardest things about it is you have 6,200 personalities. You have 6,200 issues,” said David Tuttle, superintendent of Worcester County’s jail, which holds about 1,200 inmates. “Everyone is so different.”

Tuttle also believes that no matter what jails do, they can’t always prevent an inmate suicide. It’s a viewpoint shared by Jorge Veliz, whose for-profit company based in Braintree, Correctional Psychiatric Services, has contracts with five county jails in the state.

“Sometimes you talk to a person, and he’s totally fine. He tells you nothing is wrong. He’s happy to live, and two hours later he hangs himself. There’s no way to explain,” said Veliz.

But Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on prison suicide who lives in Mansfield travels the country challenging just that notion.

“That was always the attitude, 100 percent of the time: ‘People who commit suicide never tell us that they’re going to do it. How can you expect us to be fortune tellers? It’s unfortunate, we feel sorry for the family.’ I heard it consistently all the time,” said Hayes.

Hayes has led national studies and reform efforts -- for increased training for jail and prison staff, better psychological screening of inmates, more safely-designed cells.

Many suicides are preventable, said Hayes. And that’s why he argues that jails must learn from each inmate suicide and make changes.

“That’s why it’s important. Because it’s someone’s child. It’s someone’s spouse. It’s someone we should be caring about. Putting aside what they might have been accused of or arrested for, or, in some cases convicted of,” he said.

Almost two years after her husband’s death, Laurie Duffy is still wishing that someone at Essex County Jail had seen how mentally fragile he was and done something differently.

The Eye is the online news site of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, based at WGBH Public Radio and Boston University. Shaz Sajadi, Miranda Suarez, Debora Almeida, and Kaylie Piecuch contributed to this report. Chris Burrell can be reached at Jenifer McKim can be reached at For more on this article, go to