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Monday, May 10, 1999 Published at 21:12 GMT 22:12 UK

World: Americas

Preventing prison suicides

Inmates at risk are housed in dormitories

BBC Home Affairs Correspondent Jane Peel reports on an American approach to preventing suicides among inmates.

A scheme designed to reduce suicides in New York City's jails has successfully brought the number of deaths each year down to five or fewer.

By contrast, in England and Wales, suicides went up by over a fifth last year to 83 - more than New York has had in 10 years.

[ image: One of the Riker Island institutions]
One of the Riker Island institutions
The Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK, Sir David Ramsbottom, would like British jails to adopt the American approach.

Prisons in New York City house around 18,000 inmates, compared with 60,000 prisoners in England and Wales.

Most inmates come through the 10 institutions on Rikers Island. The majority are on remand, or awaiting transfer to state prisons.

Monitor care

It is a difficult group, with a high risk of suicide. But using other prisoners as monitors has proved hugely successful. The number of suicides has gone down to four a year.

"Prisoners can suffer from depression, loneliness, maybe caused by visit or a phone call, and I look for those things, because those are the people that I feel need more attention," says Sean Taylor, an inmate who earns 23p an hour to keep an eye on fellow prisoners most at risk of suicide.

Selected inmates are specially screened, trained and tested before they can become observation aides, providing cover 24 hours a day.

[ image: Sean Taylor does his rounds]
Sean Taylor does his rounds
They are not expected to do all the work. Officers also have suicide prevention training and, in contrast to Britain, mental health staff employed by the local health department play a big role.

On arrival, every inmate has a lengthy medical and is immediately sent for psychiatric assessment if there is any cause for concern.

Round the clock attention

Throughout their stay, inmates get treatment unheard of in British prisons.

"These guys are seen every day. We do rounds every day. We do group every day. They meet with the psychiatrist once a week to review their medication to make sure they don't have any negative side effects and they meet with me individually once a week," says mental health specialist Margaret Pietrzak.

Those inmates who are considered a high suicide risk are housed, not in cells, but in dormitory accommodation in a special mental health area.

It means officers and inmate observers can watch them around the clock, and specialist psychiatric help is on hand at all times.

[ image: Officers are trained in suicide prevention]
Officers are trained in suicide prevention
The programme has succeeded in New York because the mayor and the City Correction Department have made the mental health of inmates a priority.

But the man in charge of it all says it could work anywhere with commitment from the top.

"For a system that has close to 130,000 admissions a year, we do a great job to have the kind of figures anywhere from two to three to six suicides a year. This kind of system is a model," says Assistant Commissioner Roger Parris of the New York City Correction Department.

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