Dept. of Corrections considers plan to put inmates in charge of suicide watches

Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Facing ongoing staffing shortages, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections is considering allowing trained inmates to conduct suicide watches, a model used in federal prisons and some other state facilities, and which has shown at least some success.

Commissioner William Wrenn said he has yet to see a proposal, but hopes to by the end of the month. Only select inmates with clean disciplinary records would be considered to participate.

“We have inmates trying to show positive change in their lives, they want to help others, and these are good areas for them to be involved in,” Wrenn said in an interview Thursday. “We think this could help them, help us, help the person on suicide watch, and certainly help us financially.”

Guards are currently assigned to the watches, which can last several hours and require in-person checks every 15 minutes. Prisoners who are placed under observation are transferred to observation rooms that remain lit at all times and are devoid of furniture and other items that could be used to harm themselves.

While specifics on the potential proposal have not been made available, inmate watch programs in federal facilities and in other states that use them, including Kentucky, typically offer similar if not higher levels of surveillance. In some programs, prisoners are under constant surveillance, and can talk to inmate observers if they want. Observers receive training and are taught not to counsel those being watched.

The model has been used at the federal level for at least a decade, and has reportedly shown some success. A study published in 2005 by the American Psychological Association found that inmates being observed by trained peers spent less overall time on suicide watch than those being observed by corrections officers.

Wrenn said he’s heard similar accounts from fellow commissioners. About a year ago, he asked the department’s medical staff to begin researching the model.

“They had concerns early on,” he said. “Those concerns are starting to go away.”

Department officials did not have data available Thursday on the total number of inmates placed on suicide watch annually, but Wrenn described it as “significant.” There have been no suicides in the past two years, according to department spokesman Jeff Lyons, though there have been attempts, including one earlier this month in which an inmate was coaxed off a third-floor deck at the prison in Concord.

The discussion comes as Wrenn and other department officials search for new ways to trim costs, especially forced overtime. It spent $8.6 million on the expense last fiscal year, well in excess of the $3.4 million lawmakers had budgeted. The department has attributed the trend to budget cuts and a booming prison population, which have left it severely understaffed.

“I am essentially questioning whether we have to pay staff to sit there and watch that individual,” Wrenn said.

It’s unclear whether the federal prison in Berlin uses inmate observers; Nancy Ayers, chief public information officer for the federal Bureau of Prisons, did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. Wrenn said he knows they are used in some federal facilities in the Northeast.

The program is not in place elsewhere in New Hampshire. Ron White, superintendent of the Merrimack County jail, said, “Our basic policy is that you don’t put an inmate in authority of another inmate.”

But White also noted that prisons are meant for longer stays, making suicide more of an issue there. Prison officials also often know their population better as a result, he said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)