Prisons to Comply With Study of Suicides Better Training, Housing Urged

By David Abel
The Boston Globe
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.


The state Department of Correction announced plans yesterday to comply completely with the recommendations of an independent study that found serious problems with how prisons handle suicidal inmates.

“We embrace all of the study’s 29 recommendations,” said Veronica Madden, associate commissioner of reentry and reintegration at the Department of Correction. “We have taken each of the recommendations and developed an action plan for their implementation.”

Madden would not say how much it will cost to fulfill the study’s recommendations, but she pledged that the department will do what it takes to remove from cells housing suicidal inmates any features they can use to kill themselves, raise the number of hours staff are trained to prevent suicide, and increase the frequency of observation of at-risk inmates.

The department also will seek new housing for suicidal inmates and add oversight to allow for random rounds in segregation units, where inmates are confined for 23 hours or longer every day.

“These recommendations are broad, comprehensive, and practical,” the department’s response to the study said. “The DOC is committed to implementing all of these recommendations and has completed an expedited planning process.”

The study, commissioned by the department after an increase in prisoner suicides in 2005 and 2006 left the state’s rate nearly double the national rate over the past decade, found prison policies have contributed to the problem.

Ten inmates have killed themselves in state prisons in the past two years. A suicide attempt left a prisoner brain dead. Of the 11 inmates, five had been on suicide watches, and six had documented mental health issues.

The study found that guards and other staff members lack sufficient training in suicide prevention; guards fail to check on suicidal inmates frequently enough; some cells for suicidal inmates have features that prisoners could use to harm themselves; and inmates on suicide watch are isolated by being denied visits, phone calls, showers, and time outside their cells.

It also found that between 2000 and 2005, the number of mentally ill inmates increased by nearly 1,000, while the number of beds for such inmates did not change. The state’s frequent isolation of suicidal inmates violates national prison standards, which suggest they be housed in the general population or in special mental health units, according to the report.

Some inmate advocates remained skeptical about the department’s plans.

“I’m delighted the department has created such a detailed corrective-action plan,” said Leslie Walker , executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. “However, in light of the fact that [the study ] recommended significant changes to the Department of Correction in 2000 that have [not] yet been adopted, I am concerned that the current plan may not be realized.”

She said a previous report the department commissioned by Lindsay M. Hayes , a national specialist in prison-suicide prevention, called for an increase in training that did not materialize.

Walker called the department’s plan to develop specialized units for suicidal inmates within 60 days “unrealistic and highly unlikely” and the creation of a 12man behavioral management unit as “woefully inadequate.” She also questioned whether suicidal inmates will be allowed visits by their lawyers, given the department’s efforts to block such meetings in the past.

“An overriding concern is the lack of external oversight,” Walker said. “Who is going to ensure that this corrective-action plan is going to be carried out? The department needs to practice what it preaches and become open and transparent.”