A record number of inmates killed themselves in North Carolina last year. Twelve inmates committed suicide in 2018, compared to six in 2017 and seven the year before. State prison officials are now forming a suicide prevention task force to address the issue.
This comes three years after the North Carolina prison system released a plan to prevent inmate suicides which included training staff to recognize the signs of suicidal tendencies, conducting mock suicide drills and more frequent monitoring of inmates after they leave suicide watch.
Host Frank Stasio talks to The Charlotte Observer reporters Gavin Off and Ames Alexander about their work on inmate suicide in the state. Off is a data reporter and Alexander is an investigative reporter.
Alexander on the suicide prevention plan introduced in 2016:
Part of that plan was that all prison staff should be trained to recognize whether an inmate’s at risk of committing suicide. Every prison was supposed to conduct three mock drills each year to prepare staff how to handle an attempted suicide in progress. And prison mental health professionals were supposed to do more frequent monitoring of inmates after they come off suicide watch to ensure they're out of danger. And it was also designed to discourage prisons from placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement ... But even back at that time, a lot of the experts I talked to were skeptical about the plan because they said it looked great on paper, but you really needed a lot more staff to carry it out effectively.
Off on his conversation with former correctional officer Aaron Parson:
I asked him how many mock suicide drills have you participated in — that's what you're supposed to do under the policy. He said he's never participated in a mock drill. He was never asked to participate in a mock drill, which isn't that surprising when you think about it. Some of these prisons are running at 20% vacancy rates or 25% vacancy rates for officers. So when you have that few officers, I wouldn't doubt that they find it difficult to cut some time out to do these mock drills.
Off on how the role of prisons has changed — and the effects of that change on inmates:
[The Department of Public Safety is] seeing more and more inmates with depression and anxiety and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. So it's a large task not only just to ask the regular correctional officer to identify the symptoms, but when you're short staffed for your psychologist and your psychiatrist [positions], you put more weight on those correctional officers. And then when you add on that [inmates are] spending time in solitary. And they're being abused by other inmates. And … They're ill sometimes. I think it's the overall weight that some of these inmates are feeling that it drives them to kill themselves.