by Matt Clarke
Some prisoners in the Idaho Department of Correction (DOC) who exhibit suicidal tendencies end up with other prisoners as companions, charged with engaging with them and helping to prevent self-harm.
The DOC has a population of 8,000 prisoners and reported 13 suicides between 2011 and 2016 – an average of about 2.2 each year and a rate of around 27.5 per 100,000 prisoners, which was 83% higher than the national annual average of 15 suicides per 100,000 prisoners.
To address this problem, the DOC has recruited over 200 prisoners to serve as volunteer companions for other, suicidal prisoners – a program modeled on one implemented by the federal Bureau of Prisons. According to Deputy Warden Audrey Dowell, who supervises the DOC’s education and behavioral health services, a prisoner who threatens suicide or displays other mental health symptoms is evaluated by medical staff and placed on one of three types of suicide watch.
Acute watch, for actively suicidal prisoners who have already injured themselves or have a specific plan to commit suicide, is handled by staff members who maintain continuous, direct observation. No prisoner companions are used.
Non-acute watch is for prisoners who are potentially but not actively suicidal and have a history of self-harm; this includes those who have threatened suicide but do not have a specific plan. Prisoner companions assist staff in such cases.
Close observation is for prisoners with increased psychotic or mental health symptoms who are placed in a holding cell for stabilization. Prisoner companions are used in those situations, too.
Sonia Branch, 63, is a volunteer prisoner companion at the minimum-security South Boise Women’s Correctional Center. She helps staff in watching a suicidal or mentally ill prisoner 24/7.
“I would stay up all night if I had to,” said Branch, who averages about three watches a month. “You can see the relief in these girls’ faces when another inmate comes in to sit and talk to them and comfort them and tell them everything is going to be okay.”
Former DOC Director Kevin Kempf was a warden at a men’s facility, the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino, when the prisoner companion program was launched in 2004 under then-director Tom Beauclair.
“It was a very innovative program at the time,” said Kempf. “Frankly, I was skeptical. Do we really want inmates to be overseeing inmates?
“Of course, the success of it has proven that it does work. Since 2004 we have not had one inmate who has been under the suicide watch program complete a suicide,” he stated in a 2016 news article. “Pretty good statistic. Something we are very proud of.”
However, what about statistics showing the DOC’s suicide rate between 2011 and 2016 was 83% above the national average, since the companion program existed during that time period? Perhaps prisoners are not, in fact, an adequate substitute for trained medical staff when it comes to providing sufficient mental health care.
The DOC reports that it averages 750 suicide watches per year – more than one for every eleven state prisoners. Rather than providing prisoner companions, which are offered at eight Idaho prisons, DOC officials could hire more qualified mental health employees. The prisoner companions are much cheaper, though – they receive $.30 per hour when they volunteer for suicide watch.
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