Youth Jail in Memphis to Address Suicide-Prevention Measures

Youth jail in Memphis to Address Suicide-prevention Measures

Commercial Appeal

By Beth Warren

October 11, 2012

Memphis’ juvenile jail needs to take both immediate and long-term steps to better prevent detained youths from harming or killing themselves, according to a national expert’s assessment.

The report, by jail suicide prevention consultant Lindsay Hayes, is part of an ongoing overhaul of Shelby County Juvenile Court and its detention center in response to U.S. Department of Justice findings that youths’ due-process rights and safety weren’t properly protected in lockup or court.

There hasn’t been a suicide at the youth jail during the past 37 years, Juvenile Judge Curtis Person said.

Keeping it that way is one of the major challenges of running a jail with many depressed or mentally ill detainees, said Rick Powell, who oversees the detention center.

There have been attempts. Teens have jumped off the second story of a housing unit, and tied bedsheets around their necks to strangle themselves, Powell said.

In recent incidents, detainees have chewed off their own flesh, repeatedly banged their heads against walls, and in July a teen cut himself with a spork. About six months ago, a detention officer grabbed a detainee who was about to jump from the second story.

“If kids break out in a fight, we can break that up really quickly,” Powell said.

It’s a much more daunting challenge to prevent troubled and inventive teens from harming or killing themselves, he said.

“Are we doing everything we can do to keep him safe?” Powell said he frequently asks himself. “That is what keeps me awake.”

Judge Person decided to hire Hayes, who has worked as a consultant for DOJ, to inspect the jail and review how suicide threats are handled. Hayes, the project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Mansfield, Mass., has conducted five national studies of jail, prison and juvenile suicide.

Hayes was paid by the county for his expertise, which included a three-day, on-site inspection in August. Hayes’ finalized his conclusions, which were both complimentary and critical, Sept. 29.

“We paid someone to come in here and criticize us,” Powell said. “That shows that we definitely realize we’re not perfect and the system can be improved.”

Hayes found suicide prevention training for detention staff “inadequate and in need of immediate remedy,” the report states. He suggested periodic suicide or serious-injury drills, similar to fire drills, so staff members can practice their roles in a crisis.

Hayes praised the Memphis facility for bucking a tendency at jails across the nation to segregate suicidal youths and take away phones, visitation and other privileges, further isolating already depressed youths.

The consultant agreed with the local practice of sending suicidal youths to the jail’s in-house school, Hope Academy, along with their peers, but Hayes said that meant teachers also needed suicide prevention training.

Hayes, who has been appointed as a federal court monitor to review suicide prevention practices in several adult and youth correctional facilities under judicial oversight, also disagreed with some Department of Justice findings.

Contrary to DOJ, Hayes didn’t find the Memphis youth jail to be vulnerable to hangings, which nationally are the No. 1 method of suicides behind bars, according to the report.

Hayes inspected air holes in ventilation grates at the Memphis facility and determined they are too small to allow youths to thread bedsheets or towels through them to tie and use as a anchoring base for hanging.

“Resident rooms were found to be as ‘suicide-resistant’ as possible,” Hayes concluded.

The most involved — and costly — change expected on the heels of Hayes’ report is an overhaul of the medical and mental health system, Person said.

Currently, jail staff call “mobile crisis,” which is Youth Villages’ Specialized Crisis Services, when there is an immediate threat but not one requiring a 911 call.

Larry Scroggs, the court’s chief administrative officer, said it can take one to two hours before crisis responders arrive.

Dawn Puster, Youth Villages’ director of Tennessee Crisis Services and Community Support, said crisis teams can face multiple calls at the same time. “We’re required to get to 90 percent of calls within two hours,” she said. “For the majority, we get there in under an hour.”

Hayes also recommended more intense screening and treatment of troubled youths, whom he said were not always left on suicide-watch long enough, given psychotropic medications or advised of a long-term plan for ongoing treatment once they left lockup.

Puster, who didn’t receive a copy of the report until Thursday, said her teams do communicate short-term and long-term safety plans with youths, jail staff, their families, social workers, probation officers and anyone else involved in their care.

Person said he envisions creating a comprehensive medical and mental health program similar to the adult jail system. That plan could include a youth jail psychologist and an on-call psychiatrist.