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CCA announces program to curb suicides at the jail

Jails are prone to suicides - even more so than prisons - and the problem is only exacerbated by the influx of inmates with psychiatric problems.

That was the sentiment Wednesday at the Hernando County Jail, where Corrections Corporation of America introduced county officials to its brand new suicide prevention program.

The troubled Hernando jail, which has seen three suicides since November, will be a pilot for the program, which CCA has been working on for nine months.

County Commissioners Diane Rowden and Jeff Stabins were in attendance along with interim county administrator Larry Jennings and his replacement, Gary Kuhl.

Consultant Lindsey Hayes, an expert on suicide prevention, has been in Hernando for the past few days training the jail staff on how to identify suicide risks and helping the company develop a systematic approach to preventing these deaths.

Hayes, like the CCA officials who spoke Wednesday, said that suicides could not be eliminated, despite everyone's best efforts.

In jails and prisons with multiple deaths, sometimes the cluster of deaths is systematic. Sometimes it is a statistical aberration.

"We could sit here and do nothing for two days, and I could come back in a year and you'd have no suicides," Hayes said. "But none of us want to sit in the room and do nothing when we've had three suicides."

John Tighe, CCA's vice president for health services, spelled out some of the concrete steps that would be taken at the jail.

Tighe emphasized the need to identify suicide risks as soon as an arrest is made. The jail is creating forms for arresting officers to complete when they bring a new inmate to the jail. That would give jail staffers a heads-up on at-risk inmates.

He also announced plans to appoint a suicide prevention coordinator at each jail and prison in the CCA system. The coordinator will oversee training the medical staff on how to ask questions to get inmates to open up if they are considering suicide. The coordinator also will keep comprehensive records not only on suicides, but also on attempts so that trends can be detected.

Beyond detection, some of the changes required at the jail will be physical.

Tighe said that a cellblock in the jail will be turned into a crisis stabilization unit - a transition place for inmates right after they have been taken off suicide watch but before they are introduced into the general population.

And some of the grates and protrusions in the cells will have to be altered so that they do not provide an opportunity for inmates to harm themselves.

Hayes put it bluntly:

"This facility is not that old, but unfortunately there are no physically safe cells out of the 730 beds to house inmates without constant supervision. . . . That's going to change."

But the conversation after the formal presentation turned to the mounting problem of coping with inmates who belong in psychiatric care and not in the county jail.

Of the 571 inmates at the jail on an average day in January, 101 of them were on psychotropic medications for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, said Karen DeLoreto, the jail's new suicide prevention coordinator.

Don Stewart, who started Wednesday as the jail's new warden, said that he looked to the county for a partnership in dealing with the mentally ill. He suggested the creation of a diversion program to help identify psychiatric patients and get them to treatment outside the jail.

Tighe promised that CCA would do its best to work with whatever inmates were put in the jail, but he wanted to call the county's attention to the difficulties inherent in housing inmates with psychiatric problems.

"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't tell you that they don't belong here," Tighe said.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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