Rash of Inmate Suicides Run Against National Trend

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Prison suicides run against national trend

But investigator calls suicide-prevention program here ‘very robust.’
Report on three deaths due as soon as this month.

By JACK BRUBAKER, Lancaster On-line, November 13, 2011

Three prisoners have committed suicide in the 1,100-inmate Lancaster County Prison this year.

How unusual is that?

“Very unusual, but not unprecedented,” according to Lindsay Hayes, an expert on suicide prevention in correctional facilities who is examining the situation here.

The local cluster of suicides is not in sync with a national trend, according to a study Hayes directed last year.

During the past two decades, the suicide rate in county jails has declined threefold, according to the National Study of Inmate Suicide. The study terms that decrease “extraordinary.”

So why an increase in suicides here?

Hayes declines to discuss details of his recent inspection of the local jail until after he releases his report. He says that may be by the end of this month.

However, he says there is a variety of possible explanations for such suicide spikes. In some cases, he says, there is no explanation.

Overcrowding, which is chronic in Lancaster County Prison, is not a factor, according to Hayes, who was hired by PrimeCare Medical Inc., a private, Harrisburg-based firm that provides the
prison’s medical services.

“The key is always if a jurisdiction continues to experience a high number of suicides year after year,” Hayes writes in answer to email questions posed by a reporter.

The three suicides — the first two by diving over a railing from an upper tier and the third by hanging — happened March 22, July 24 and Sept. 28.

This is the first year the local prison has experienced more than one suicide. There have been 10 suicides since 1998, including six in the past six years.

From 2008, when the state Department of Corrections began providing suicide statistics from individual county jails, through 2010, three prisons in the state have reported as many as two suicides per year. No county jail has reported three in one year.

Some counties do not report prison statistics to the state.

Hayes, program director of the Massachusetts-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives jail suicide prevention and liability reduction program, spent three days at the county jail early this month.

He examined various aspects of the suicide-prevention program, including staff training, new inmate screening, and observation of inmates.

Hayes says the prison staff’s response to the three suicides is similar to the response in hundreds of other jails with suicide clusters that he has assessed.

“There was a high degree of stress and concern created over the recent deaths,” he explains, “with staff deeply invested in trying to do whatever is reasonably possible to stop the bleeding and reduce the opportunity for future suicides.”

Hayes says that from his observation the prison is maintaining a “very robust” program to train correctional officers to prevent suicides.

“There were three suicide prevention training workshops going on during my visit,” he says.

But one aspect of that training program was missing.

John MacAlarney has been providing specialized suicide-prevention training to the prison for several years. He stopped doing that following the third suicide.

MacAlarney and his employer, the Family Training and Advocacy Center for Mental Illness, of Philadelphia, have provided no reason for leaving the job.

But Scott Martin, chairman of the Lancaster County Commissioners and the prison board, says he is disturbed by Family Training’s abrupt withdrawal.

“For an organization that is committed to a cause — and then we have three unfortunate situations — to make a decision counter to their mission is not appropriate,” he says.

MacAlarney’s group will not be missed, Martin says, because suicide-prevention training efforts by the prison itself and by local groups doing crisis intervention training already have increased.

“We were already moving in that direction,” he says. “We appreciate what they’ve done in the past, but we have good local firms who can do the job.”