State pushes wardens to combat inmate suicides

State pushes wardens to combat inmate suicides   8:41 AM, Mar. 11, 2011  |  http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/article/20110311/NEWS01/103110337/1006/RSS01

 To read previous installments in the Journal’s series on prison suicides, go to http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com and click on Special Reports.

Facility Name Date of suicide

Ulster James Williams 3/9/1989
Ulster Ronald Christian 11/19/2000
Ulster Sean Sims 1/17/2003
Ulster Richard Vandemark 4/8/2009
Ulster Kevin Schmitt 9/4/2009
Dutchess Justin McCue 9/23/2010
Dutchess Thomas Siewert 2/11/2011
Source: state Commission of Correction

Jails and prisons are experiencing a “troubling increase in the rate of inmate suicide” and are being called on to renew their commitment to preventing them, according to a memo issued by a state oversight agency.

The memo was distributed Feb. 14 by the chairman of the state Commission of Correction — three days after a second inmate hanged himself in a five-month period at the Dutchess County Jail, which had not had a single suicide in the previous 30 years. A commission spokesman, John Caher, said the memo “had been in the works for a while and was not a direct result of anything involving Dutchess.”

Nonetheless, the two incidents at the City of Poughkeepsie facility represent a significant share of suicides behind bars — rare events that are growing in frequency in jails and prisons. Statewide, there were 12 jail suicides in both 2009 and 2010, compared with 10 in 2007 and four in 2008, commission figures show. Prison suicides doubled to 20 from 2009 to 2010, when the suicide rate rose to its highest level since 1982, the Poughkeepsie Journal has reported.

The state’s 64 local jails hold 16,500 inmates who await disposition of criminal charges, transfer to prison or completion of sentences of up to a year. Inmates convicted for longer terms are sent to 67 state prisons, which hold 57,000 offenders. The prison suicide rate is about three times the rate in the general population.

Warnings underscored

In the memo, commission Chairman Thomas A. Beilein expressed concern over the suicide increase, repeating previous warnings and sometimes underscoring advisories in boldface type and capital letters.

“In 2010, there were a total of 32 suicides in correctional facilities,” he wrote. “While the precise causes of this rise remain unclear, the medical review board has advised the commission that a review and reiteration of … suicide prevention is warranted.” The board investigates suicides.

Among the factors associated with “completed suicides” and highlighted in the memo were substance-abuse withdrawal and imminent sentencing to state prison — factors that may have played a part locally in one or both recent suicides.

(Page 2 of 3)

In one case, a Pleasant Valley man with a prior drunken-driving conviction, Thomas Allen Siewert, 51, was held on a felony charge of driving while intoxicated a week before hanging himself from an air grate Feb. 11.

In the other, a 26-year-old man who had served a prison stint for burglary and drug possession hanged himself with a sheet Sept. 23. Justin McCue of Westchester County was being held for up to a year on a stolen-property conviction and faced revocation of his parole with a possible return to prison.

In the memo, wardens are reminded that family, friends and other inmates must be encouraged to report “knowledge of inmates threatening self-harm or suicide” and are given a list of circumstances that may prompt suicide attempts. These include birthdays and holidays, first incarceration, family problems, gang activity and a finding of guilt at trial.

George Krom, administrator, said the Dutchess jail, which had 257 inmates Thursday, has posted notices advising visitors to report signs of impending suicide while also instituting two-hour suicide-prevention refresher courses for staff.

“This is a serious situation,” Krom said, referring to inmates who indicate even an “inkling” of suicidal behavior. “We’re going to put you on constant supervision until you are seen by appropriate medical personnel.”

The need for frequent checks was hammered home in the commission’s memo.

Checks ‘inadequate’

Guards check inmates who are deemed at risk of suicide at routine intervals, but Beilein said the intervals — shortened from 30 minutes to 15 before several suicides investigated by the commission — were “plainly inadequate.”

“(I)t is a well-established fact that inmates can hang themselves with fatal results in less than five minutes,” he wrote. Then, in boldface capital letters, he warned: “SUPERVISORY INTERVALS OF 5 TO 15 MINUTES ARE NOT ADEQUATE AS A SUICIDE PREVENTION PRECAUTION.”

A lack of supervision was a factor in the 2009 suicide of inmate Richard Vandemark, 22, at Ulster County Jail, said Michael Sussman, a Goshen attorney who is representing the inmate’s family in a $10 million lawsuit against the jail.

(Page 3 of 3)

In an eerie parallel to Dutchess, the suicide was one of two at the Kingston facility in a five-month period in 2009.

Sussman said Vandemark’s case, for which he said a settlement is being negotiated, is “starkly simple.”

“There was a suicide screening done,” he said. “He needed one-on-one (supervision). It wasn’t provided by the jail.”

In response, Ulster County Undersheriff Frank Faluotico would say only, “That is Mr. Sussman’s version of the events that happened. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what happened.” He said the jail, with 330 inmates Thursday, evaluates all suicide-related incidents, adding, “We continue to correct every mistake that’s made.”

The memo, meantime, asserts that suicide attempts are often impulsive acts by people who are “not necessarily determined to commit suicide” and who can be deterred with close supervision and mental-health care that “allows time for the crisis to pass.”

The memo reminded administrators of key components of suicide prevention, including screening for suicide risk, scheduling mental-health care, hospitalizing inmates when needed, training staff and reviewing suicide-related incidents. Administrators have an “affirmative duty” to provide additional supervision when inmates show signs of suicide, the memo says — one that he said cannot “be waived.”

Caher, the commission spokesman, said no directives have been issued involving the Dutchess jail suicides, which are under investigation. Reports take on average 13 months.

Krom declined to discuss the suicides. But he said that overcrowding forces the jail to house about 150 inmates a day in other counties, leaving the most troubled inmates behind.

“Our record was quite good before this,” he said. “It’s not the facility. It’s the environment. We have a very sick population now.”

In one case, a Pleasant Valley man with a prior drunken-driving conviction, Thomas Allen Siewert, 51, was held on a felony charge of driving while intoxicated a week before hanging himself from an air grate Feb. 11.

In the other, a 26-year-old man who had served a prison stint for burglary and drug possession hanged himself with a sheet Sept. 23. Justin McCue of Westchester County was being held for up to a year on a stolen-property conviction and faced revocation of his parole with a possible return to prison.

In the memo, wardens are reminded that family, friends and other inmates must be encouraged to report “knowledge of inmates threatening self-harm or suicide” and are given a list of circumstances that may prompt suicide attempts. These include birthdays and holidays, first incarceration, family problems, gang activity and a finding of guilt at trial.

George Krom, administrator, said the Dutchess jail, which had 257 inmates Thursday, has posted notices advising visitors to report signs of impending suicide while also instituting two-hour suicide-prevention refresher courses for staff.

“This is a serious situation,” Krom said, referring to inmates who indicate even an “inkling” of suicidal behavior. “We’re going to put you on constant supervision until you are seen by appropriate medical personnel.”

The need for frequent checks was hammered home in the commission’s memo.

Checks ‘inadequate’

Guards check inmates who are deemed at risk of suicide at routine intervals, but Beilein said the intervals — shortened from 30 minutes to 15 before several suicides investigated by the commission — were “plainly inadequate.”

“(I)t is a well-established fact that inmates can hang themselves with fatal results in less than five minutes,” he wrote. Then, in boldface capital letters, he warned: “SUPERVISORY INTERVALS OF 5 TO 15 MINUTES ARE NOT ADEQUATE AS A SUICIDE PREVENTION PRECAUTION.”

A lack of supervision was a factor in the 2009 suicide of inmate Richard Vandemark, 22, at Ulster County Jail, said Michael Sussman, a Goshen attorney who is representing the inmate’s family in a $10 million lawsuit against the jail.

(Page 3 of 3)

In an eerie parallel to Dutchess, the suicide was one of two at the Kingston facility in a five-month period in 2009.

Sussman said Vandemark’s case, for which he said a settlement is being negotiated, is “starkly simple.”

“There was a suicide screening done,” he said. “He needed one-on-one (supervision). It wasn’t provided by the jail.”

In response, Ulster County Undersheriff Frank Faluotico would say only, “That is Mr. Sussman’s version of the events that happened. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what happened.” He said the jail, with 330 inmates Thursday, evaluates all suicide-related incidents, adding, “We continue to correct every mistake that’s made.”

The memo, meantime, asserts that suicide attempts are often impulsive acts by people who are “not necessarily determined to commit suicide” and who can be deterred with close supervision and mental-health care that “allows time for the crisis to pass.”

The memo reminded administrators of key components of suicide prevention, including screening for suicide risk, scheduling mental-health care, hospitalizing inmates when needed, training staff and reviewing suicide-related incidents. Administrators have an “affirmative duty” to provide additional supervision when inmates show signs of suicide, the memo says — one that he said cannot “be waived.”

Caher, the commission spokesman, said no directives have been issued involving the Dutchess jail suicides, which are under investigation. Reports take on average 13 months.

Krom declined to discuss the suicides. But he said that overcrowding forces the jail to house about 150 inmates a day in other counties, leaving the most troubled inmates behind.

“Our record was quite good before this,” he said. “It’s not the facility. It’s the environment. We have a very sick population now.”

In an eerie parallel to Dutchess, the suicide was one of two at the Kingston facility in a five-month period in 2009.

Sussman said Vandemark’s case, for which he said a settlement is being negotiated, is “starkly simple.”

“There was a suicide screening done,” he said. “He needed one-on-one (supervision). It wasn’t provided by the jail.”

In response, Ulster County Undersheriff Frank Faluotico would say only, “That is Mr. Sussman’s version of the events that happened. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what happened.” He said the jail, with 330 inmates Thursday, evaluates all suicide-related incidents, adding, “We continue to correct every mistake that’s made.”

The memo, meantime, asserts that suicide attempts are often impulsive acts by people who are “not necessarily determined to commit suicide” and who can be deterred with close supervision and mental-health care that “allows time for the crisis to pass.”

The memo reminded administrators of key components of suicide prevention, including screening for suicide risk, scheduling mental-health care, hospitalizing inmates when needed, training staff and reviewing suicide-related incidents. Administrators have an “affirmative duty” to provide additional supervision when inmates show signs of suicide, the memo says — one that he said cannot “be waived.”

Caher, the commission spokesman, said no directives have been issued involving the Dutchess jail suicides, which are under investigation. Reports take on average 13 months.

Krom declined to discuss the suicides. But he said that overcrowding forces the jail to house about 150 inmates a day in other counties, leaving the most troubled inmates behind.

“Our record was quite good before this,” he said. “It’s not the facility. It’s the environment. We have a very sick population now.”

Reach Mary Beth Pfeiffer at mbpfeiff@poughkeepsiejournal.com or 845-437-4869

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Prisons. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s