The Other Death Sentence

The Boston Globe
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.


THE STATE Department of Correction accepts, in principle, the 29 recommendations from a report released this week on suicide prevention in prison. The lack of defensiveness is promising. But the true test will be how quickly the prison system is able to implement the changes.

Since the beginning of 2006, eight inmates have killed themselves in Massachusetts prisons, nearly five times the national average. Much of the problem is rooted in the rise in inmates with severe mental illness. But the prison system is not adjusting well either, according to Lindsay Hayes, a national expert in suicide prevention. In a report ordered by Correction Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, he cites flaws in training, communication, cell design, and inmate supervision. The greatest challenge for the prison system will be finding places to house suicidal inmates other than in segregation units — that is, solitary confinement — where mentally ill inmates often deteriorate rapidly.

State prisons provide good intake screening procedures to identify potentially suicidal inmates, according to the report. But then the trouble starts. Health services units, the supposedly safest place for the mentally ill, were the site of three suicides last year. Correction officers fail to pick up suicidal signs due to erratic training. It’s not callousness so much as cluelessness about how to protect suicidal inmates that has posed the greatest danger.

Correction officials are trying to determine how much it will cost to implement the recommendations. In the meantime, they should adopt the most practical recommendations to address the crisis. Staffing changes or additions should be made immediately to ensure that suicidal inmates are checked more frequently than every 30 minutes. And the need for more frequent rounds is most pressing on the overnight shift, when reduced staffing and dim lighting limit the effectiveness of human and video camera observation.

The report notes with alarm that one roving correction officer on the overnight shift is responsible for checking inmates in segregation, protective custody, and other special housing units at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. But the problem is systemwide. Of the 13 inmate suicides in the state prison system since 2004, nine occurred on the night shift.

Correction officials are pledging to implement the recommendations on tight timelines. They’re hopeful that the addition of residential treatment centers for mentally ill inmates will reduce the use of segregation units. They vow to make training improvements immediately. And they promise that suicidal inmates will be placed under proper observation every 15 minutes and given more out-of-cell time within the next 60 days.

Even 60 days, however, is too long to wait for those who have abandoned hope.