Program aims to curb suicide in state prisons

A pair of detention centers in Arkansas will receive suicide awareness, education, and prevention training from the Arkansas chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Project 2025 correctional program to stop the increase in suicides among correctional officers and those incarcerated in the state.

“Suicide is a real problem, the number one killer in prisons, and they need someone to stand up for them and fight for their lives,” said Kristina Johnson, a graduate student in professional and technical writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. who wrote the grant proposal that will provide training to the Garland County Detention Center and the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center.

“The correctional community is very neglected,” and correctional officers and incarcerated people “are at very high risk for suicide, so it’s about saving lives,” Johnson said.

Suicide “is a big concern” in correctional facilities, not just for inmates, but for staff, said Steven Elrod, deputy chief corrections officer for the Garland County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s one of the most stressful working environments, so we want to help our employees.”

This can include everything from “stress management techniques” to “making sure they know there are people to talk to,” Elrod said. “We love being involved in programs like this, [because] It’s worked very well in the past.”

Corrections workers have a higher suicide rate than the general public, and “any loss of life due to suicide is so sad, so being able to provide the right help is vitally important,” said Rodney Shepherd, deputy director of the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center. With more training, staff can recognize possible warning signs from each other and help each other, or “get them to someone else who can help them”, such as the centre’s licensed and certified social worker. of detention.

The pilot program will begin later this fall — September was Suicide Prevention Month — training detention center staff members with the goal of eventually transitioning to inmates themselves, said Johnson, who plans to get his diploma in December. By training detention center staff, these workers can spot — and deal with — the warning signs of suicide not only in each other, but also in those who are incarcerated.

Suicide prevention is part of the initial training for new employees at Garland County Detention Center, and “we offer additional annual training, but we know we don’t have all the answers,” Elrod said. “We want to hear ideas and new strategies from experts so we can collaborate to improve.”

The program is “suitable for correctional institutions,” Johnson said. It will help survivors of suicide attempts, those contemplating suicide, those who have lost someone to suicide, and those trying to prevent others from committing suicide.

From 2000 to 2019, inmate suicide deaths in Arkansas prisons nearly quadrupled, from three to 11, a larger increase than nationally, where inmate suicide deaths have not increased. increased only 13% over the same period, Johnson said. “I know there’s not a lot of sympathy for [inmates] people, but they’re still someone’s father or son, mother or daughter, brother or sister, and I care a lot about doing good for people in need.”

Shepherd worked in corrections for two decades and dealt with multiple incarcerated suicides during that time, so “whatever we can do to be better equipped to recognize these signs, the better off we all are,” said he declared. “Families never understand ‘why a member of their family died by suicide –‘ it’s very hard and difficult to understand — and I wish people here could step in and stop anyone who might borrow this way. “

Although “there isn’t a lot of data on correctional officer suicides, their national suicide rate is 39% higher than in other professions” – according to a study by Steven Stack and Olga Tsoudis from 1997’s “Suicide Risk Among Correctional Officers: A Logistical Regression Analysis” — and it’s “twice the rate for police officers,” Johnson said. This problem “needs attention, and they need tools to prevent suicides.”

Not only will detention center staff be educated about suicide prevention through this grant, but they will be equipped with the skills and knowledge to train others, said Jacqueline Sharp, regional director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Foundation. for suicide prevention. “We give you the tools and encourage you to continue in the future.”

“We find it’s more impactful when it [message] comes from his peers,” Sharp added. “When it comes from the community, it means more, and individuals open up more.

Elrod is especially excited about the Project 2025 pilot program because it’s happening in person rather than remotely.

“We’re trying to steer away from the trend online,” not only because so many people are exhausted from remote meetings that have proliferated during the pandemic, but also because sensitive topics like suicide prevention are better off in “collaborative group discussions,” he said. . “Officers can share what they see on the job with inmates and their” fellow officers.

The AFSP-AR received a $10,000 grant from the Roy and Christine Sturgis Trust based on Johnson’s proposal, and the Project 2025 corrections program is also funded by a Participatory Community Research Award from the Research Institute. University of Arkansas Translational Foundation for Medical Sciences, according to Angie Faller, director of news, communications and marketing, UALR. After nine months of educational programs at the two detention centers, ASFP-AR members will gather feedback on what has been successful in the program, which will help them better understand how to expand the program in other correctional facilities. in the future.

This data, provided to the National Suicide Prevention Foundation, will help inform suicide prevention training at correctional centers across the country, Sharp said. “It’s really exciting.”

The 2025 Project aims to reduce the suicide rate by 20% by 2025, a key element being to reach “areas that have not been considered as much” before, such as health care and the correctional community , said Sharp. “We’re taking a real research and science-based approach to this.”

“I like the concept of treating mental health like physical health, and we work hard to educate people,” Sharp said. “We want people to know that they are not alone and that there is hope.”

Susie Reece has a long-standing relationship with the two detention centers included in this pilot, which made them natural choices, Sharp said. “She’s been going there for years to talk about suicide prevention.”

Reece began discussing suicide awareness and prevention with those incarcerated in Garland County nearly a decade ago, which also led her to develop relationships with workers, she said. . “They are all members of the community, in one way or another, [so] it affects us all; even the incarcerated, the goal is to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into the community. »

When Reece began her work with the incarcerated, she was admittedly “against the grain, because it’s a very specialized field, but one good thing about the pandemic is greater awareness of mental health, for everyone. world,” she said. “We all need mental health care.”

Reece lost his father to suicide when he was 10, which helped instill a desire to rescue others.

“There are so many people out there who want to help, so if you’re feeling lonely, you can find” support, including through the suicide prevention foundation, said Reece, a “champion” of the 2025 Project. “For too long this hasn’t been discussed publicly, but how do you fix something if you’re afraid to talk about it?”

Anyone interested in getting involved with the 2025 Project is invited to contact Reece at [email protected], she said. “We are definitely looking for volunteers.”

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