Florida inmates are now being tasked with observing other inmates on suicide watch after the state Department of Corrections quietly implemented a new policy in April.
Inmates who are identified as being at risk for self-harm are housed in isolation rooms certified by health directors. They require continuous monitoring, which can be done either by having staff watching at the cell or by using security cameras and doing physical checks at least every 15 minutes.
Now some inmates are taking on parts of this vital task, according to an internal document obtained by the Tampa Bay Times and confirmed by a spokesperson for the prison system. So far, 19 inmates have already been tapped to be unpaid observers, said spokesperson Paul Walker.
The change will let the prison system free up staff from constant observation, Walker said, but will not otherwise change security and medical protocols for people in its care at risk of suicide. He said the inmate observers will be supervised.
Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has repeatedly spoken about an understaffing “crisis” in Florida’s prisons, noting high turnover as the system struggles to find enough guards.
The department said in a statement that “ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive all necessary medical and behavioral treatment” is one of its top priorities.
But David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, questioned the state’s plan to have inmates observing on suicide watches. He said creating any kind of power imbalance among inmates, or giving certain inmates access to private information about other inmates, is irresponsible.
“It’s been recognized for decades that giving incarcerated people power over other incarcerated people, giving them access to their confidential medical information, is a very bad idea,” Fathi said. “So given this history and given this body of law, I’m frankly surprised that anyone thought this was a good idea.”
Inmate observers to be hand chosen
Since the 2015 fiscal year, 102 inmates in Florida prisons have died by suicide, according to department statistics.
Under the new inmate observer program, a prison’s warden or assistant warden and psychological services director will recommend which inmates should become observers, according to an internal document. Those inmates will then be trained and will also have to sign confidentiality notices.
Inmates who are sex offenders, who have been internally identified as being a “predator,” who have serious disciplinary reports within the past year, who have a documented history of being a suicide risk or who have other high-risk behavior will be barred from being an observer, according to the memo.
The memo specifies that inmate observers will not document their observations or conversations with the inmates they observe.
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A PowerPoint presentation explaining the program to prospective observers praises them for their “great attitude!” that helped them get chosen.
The presentation says that inmates cannot speak with those they’re monitoring unless staff members say otherwise. But it says they can listen and potentially provide “feedback to security and health care staff.” It also warns the selected inmate observers that the inmates they may be observing could be “emotionally disturbed” or have poor hygiene, and says that “you may have to wait for relief if staff are busy in another area of the institution.”
Florida’s inmates will not be paid for being an observer. The prison system said in a statement that if an inmate decides they don’t want to be an observer, there’s a process to give them a different job placement.
Florida not the first to use inmate observers
The Florida Department of Corrections said the program was modeled after successes in states like South Carolina, Michigan and Kansas, as well as a program used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A department spokesman pointed to a 2005 study, conducted by three authors employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, that called the federal system’s practice of using inmate observers a “win-win.”
The study concluded that having inmate observers reduces the length of time inmates spend on watch but doesn’t compromise care.
Fathi said the inmate observer program isn’t in wide practice. He said it’s just another way for prisons to cut costs and dole out “second-tier” health care.
“The law is clear that incarcerated people are entitled to health care that meets community standards,” Fathi said. “You wouldn’t have your fellow patients in a free world psychiatric hospital making the life-or-death determinations whether you’re harming yourself or not.”
Fathi said while he’s sure the inmates who participate in the program are well-intentioned, they are not good substitutes for mental health professionals or other staff members, who can access an inmate harming themselves in seconds.
He said any delay caused by an inmate observer having to fetch a supervisor could be the difference between life and death.
“The prisoner observer obviously isn’t going to have the keys to the cell,” Fathi said.
Some state legislators unaware of program
State Rep. Dianne Hart, a member of the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee and who is one of Florida’s more outspoken prison reform politicians, was unfamiliar with the program before a Times reporter contacted her.
“I really hope that this is because we really care that we have somebody paying attention to people on suicide watch,” said Hart, D-Tampa. “And I know that we don’t have enough correctional officers, so I’m sure that’s part of what they’re going to tell me.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, another leading prison reform advocate in the state, also said he wasn’t aware of the change but said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to staffing difficulties.
The prison system’s 2019-2020 annual report says that low pay often drives correctional officers to other law enforcement agencies, saying salaries in those similar agencies exceed state correctional officer’s salaries by up to 30 percent.
The number of employees leaving often leads to posts being staffed by inexperienced officers who “lack the seasoned judgment needed to exercise their responsibilities with prudence,” according to the report.
“I think this is just another sign of his department doing everything they can to maximize the people,” Brandes said of the inmate observer program. He said Corrections Secretary Inch is “a secretary who’s desperate to find solutions to problems.”