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PrisonsSuicides 05-28

Inmate suicide rate drops

Every 30 minutes, day and night, guards walk the tiers of the isolation unit at California State Prison, Sacramento, checking inmates to make sure they don’t kill themselves. The guards have been doing so since October, when the prison system instituted a series of reforms to cut the high rate of inmate suicides. The steps were prompted by a federal judge’s finding that a disproportionate number of suicides occurred in the isolation cells used to segregate inmates for disciplinary or other reasons.

The measures, which include screening inmates for potential suicidal tendencies and training guards how to intervene, appear to be making a difference. Guards have reported preventing more than 60 suicides in segregation cells so far this year — out of more than 170 suicides attempted during the past five months in the state’s 33 adult prisons.

"They’ve approached several guys who have nooses around their necks and they’ve intervened. They’ve saved them," said Correctional Capt. Gene Nies, who oversees the Folsom prison’s segregation unit. "They know these guys. They start to recognize the signs. They know to check on them more frequently." Even with the frequent checks, the guards still can be too late.

Last year, a record 43 inmates killed themselves in California prisons — nearly half in isolation units. California’s rate of 25.5 deaths per 100,000 inmates is nearly double the nationwide prison suicide rate of 14 per 100,000, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Through Friday, 13 inmates had committed suicide, compared with 19 during the same period a year ago. Three were in the segregation units.

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