North Carolina Policy Seeks to Decrease Prison Suicide Rates

RALEIGH, N.C. — Prompted by a rash of recent inmate suicides, North Carolina correctional officials published new policies and procedures on June 1 intended to prevent inmate attempts at self-harm. One North Carolina inmate committed suicide in January, and four additional suicides occurring between mid-April and early May brought the crisis to a head.

The new Division of Adult Correction-Prisons policy — which was developed following 2012 and 2014 recommendations by University of Colorado School of Medicine Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Jeffrey Metzner — states that the division “recognizes the need to have a comprehensive suicide prevention program,” and that all departmental staff shares the responsibility for preventing suicide.

Essential components of the state’s new suicide prevention program include early detection, intervention and treatment beginning as soon as the inmate enters the prison system, with screening and assessment to take place upon arrival. “Continued vigilance on the part of staff enables them to develop a sound working knowledge of the individuals who make up the population; this vigilance must be maintained throughout the period of incarceration for each inmate,” the policy stated.

The department aims to train all institutional staff in recognizing indicators that an inmate is in need of mental health services, and provide avenues for those inmates to access proper services and support. That training will also extend to recognizing signs of a potential suicide attempt, and training staff to take action to prevent suicide “with appropriate sensitivity, supervision and referral.”

The policy also encourages institutions to curb the use of restrictive housing for inmates deemed at risk for suicide, limiting days spent in solitary confinement to no more than 30 annually, and instead instructs facilities to develop appropriate treatment settings to facilitate optimal mental health. The onus is now on facility heads to ensure that suicide prevention programs are implemented, and that a suicide prevention coordinator is identified. Each facility must also designate specific suicide watch areas.

Speaking with the Charlotte Observer, Lindsay Hayes, an expert on inmate suicide prevention, pointed out that the policies could potentially fall short of their goals. Hayes specifically pointed to the fact that the policy allows for video monitoring of inmates deemed at risk for suicide rather than requiring correctional officers to monitor them directly, which in other facilities has proven much more effective at preventing self-harm.

The policies will go into effect Sept. 1.