DARTMOUTH, Mass. (WPRI) — Sheriff Paul Heroux is taking steps to prevent suicides in Bristol County jails.
Heroux, a Democrat who replaced Republican Thomas Hodgson last fall, said he’s focused on moving the jail system forward, and one of the ways he plans to do that is by improving inmate safety.
Heroux released a lengthy report Thursday compiled by nationally recognized suicide prevention expert Lindsay Hayes. It outlines 24 steps Bristol County can take to help reduce and prevent suicides.
There have been 10 inmate suicides over the last seven years within the Bristol County jail system, according to the report, one of which happened just days after Heroux took office.
“Right now, our suicide rate is three times the national average,” Heroux said. “While there is a normal base-rate of suicides we can’t get away from, we can certainly reduce it.”
The steps listed in the report include mandatory training for correctional officers, which Hayes described as “the backbone of any correctional system.”
“Very few suicides are actually prevented by mental health, medical or other professional staff,” Hayes wrote, adding that inmates typically attempt suicide in their cells and “outside the purview of program staff.”
“Simply stated, correctional officers are often the only staff available 24 hours a day, thus they form the front line of defense in suicide prevention,” he continued.
Hayes suggested that all correctional officers and staff who regularly work with inmates be trained on suicide prevention upon hire and annually.
Other suggestions include mandatory intake screenings to assess an inmate’s mental state, improved communication among prison staff, and increased supervision.
“Certain signs exhibited by the inmate can often foretell a possible suicide and, if detected and communicated to others, can prevent such an incident,” Hayes explained.
Hayes said the Bristol County jail system should also avoid isolating inmates when possible and ensure that all of their cells are “suicide-resistant,” especially those on mental health watch.
The report revealed that seven of the reported suicides within the jails involved the use of metal bunk beds. That’s why Heroux plans to replace those beds with ones that don’t have “choke points,” or places where inmates can attempt to hang themselves.
While he acknowledged that not every suicide can be prevented, Hayes said the Bristol County jail system should conduct an extensive review of each incident to point out any flaws that need to be addressed.
“Experience has demonstrated that many correctional systems have reduced the likelihood of future suicides by critically reviewing the circumstances surrounding incidents as they occur,” he said.
Hayes suggested Heroux form a committee dedicated to implementing the recommendations. Heroux said that is exactly what he plans to do, adding that all of those steps are achievable.
“Everything here is realistic and it’s going to make us a more modern jail system,” he said. “If these things were done [in the past], I think some of the suicides could’ve been prevented.”
He also plans to close the controversial Ash Street Jail in New Bedford, which he hopes will improve staffing at the other two prisons.
Heroux is asking the state for an additional $12 million to help implement the suicide prevention recommendations and other safety enhancements within the jail system.