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On watch
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 09/01/2008

0825chairs Creating sound suicide prevention policy is a growing concern for many corrections agencies around the world. The suicide rate in United Kingdom prisons is on the rise, and a Texas county jail was recently sued by the family of a 17-year old man claiming the jail staff did not do enough to prevent his suicide in his cell.

Since 1982, the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has addressed this challenging issue by utilizing a prevention plan to assist staff in identifying and managing potentially suicidal inmates. The plan sets forth the agency’s staff training procedures, housing plans for at-risk inmates, and prevention and intervention strategies.

The Inmate Observer Program (IOP), one of the Bureau’s more inventive strategies, trains inmates to conduct formal suicide watches of fellow inmates who pose a danger to themselves.

Corrections.com spoke with Jennifer Edens, the psychology services administrator for the BOP’s mid-Atlantic region, and Amy Boyd, a clinical psychologist and former program coordinator at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina, for a look at this unique approach to suicide prevention.

Corrections.com: Conducting a suicide watch seems like a tremendous responsibility to assign to anyone who’s not a trained mental health professional. So, how does this program work?

Jennifer Edens: Most BOP institutions use inmate companions with great effectiveness. Inmate companions, rather than staff, may be used during the suicide watch at the discretion of the warden. Inmate companions are selected by the facility’s doctoral-level psychologist based upon their ability to perform suicide watch tasks and their reputation within the institution.

They must be mature, reliable, and have credibility with both staff and inmates. They must be able to protect the suicidal inmate’s privacy from other inmates and must be able to perform their duties with minimal need for ongoing direct supervision by staff.

In addition, companions must not be a pre-trial inmate or contractual boarder, or have committed a 100-level prohibited act within the last three years. They also need to be in the Financial Responsibility Program, GED program, or in Drug Education Refusal status.

CC: What does the training for the companions involve?

JE: Each observer receives four hours of initial training before being assigned to a watch. They also receive four hours of training semi-annually. Each training involves a review of policy requirements, location of suicide watch areas, how to summon staff in the event of an emergency, recognition of behavior signs of stress or agitation, and how to record observations in the suicide watch log.

Observers will meet at least quarterly with program coordinators to review procedures, discuss issues, and supplement training. After inmates have served as observers, they are debriefed by the program coordinator.

CC: During these watch sessions, how do the companion and observed inmate typically interact?

JE: The companion observes the inmate on watch through glass. There is always a locked door between them. The companion and the observer generally have minimal verbal interaction, although if the inmate on watch wishes to talk, the companion may converse with them through the glass. They are trained to engage in supportive conversation only.

Amy Boyd: It’s definitely not a pleasant experience for the inmate being observed. They are literally constantly watched, everything they do, even when they need to use the bathroom. But what we found was that some inmates respond more positively to being watched by an inmate, as opposed to being watched by a staff member.

A lot of the times the inmate being watch is severely depressed and is not responsive to staff, but they will communicate with their companion. Although it could go either way; some didn’t want another inmate there and preferred the staff. CC: In what ways does the IOP benefit the Bureau?

JE: The companion program has been very effective. It has generated taxpayer savings, because staff engaged in inmate suicide watches often requires over-time pay or compensatory time. Inmates are paid for their work, but the cost is negligible.

In addition, inmates often report feelings of pride and enhanced self-esteem as a result of their work in the companion program. They enjoy being able to contribute meaningfully to help their fellow offenders during a time of need.

AB: I think it’s a great program. It’s beneficial for both the staff and the inmate.

CC: Are there any risks?

JE: A potential risk is that an inmate could be selected as a companion and then provide poor watch services. But, staff provides hourly in-person monitoring of the companion and constant video monitoring also occurs at most institutions, so opportunities for misbehavior are minimal.

Inmates found to provide poor watch services are immediately removed from their duties and receive an incident report for the infraction. Such instances are, however, rare due to the thoroughness of our selection, training, and monitoring.

CC: Thank you to you both.

Related Resources:

Read about the recent lawsuit in Texas

More on the rise in UK prison suicides


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