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Suicide prevention inside Maine's jails and prisons

An in-depth look at suicide prevention protocol inside Maine's jails and prisons

CUSHING, Maine — Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections Randall Liberty says the state follows 'national best practice' in regards to suicide prevention. 

According to Liberty, when someone is first placed on suicide watch at one of Maine's county jails or state prisons, they undergo constant surveillance.

"We do a thing called 'constant watch'. That means there's an officer on a chair looking into the cell 24/7," says Liberty. 

"Every eight hours or so, the clinician comes in and does an assessment to determine if they're still suicidal or not."

After just one of those assessments, an inmate can be moved to an every 15-minute check, then to an every 30-minute check, and eventually back to the one check each hour.

"Through counseling and treatment, they come off the watch, they feel better, and in very large part resume their lives here at the facility," says Liberty. 

Maine's Department of Corrections shares five psychologists among its six adult facilities. 

Commissioner Liberty says whether someone is taken off suicide watch is completely dependent upon the phycological evaluations.

"They're trained to determine if the individual is a threat to themselves or others," says Liberty. "It's purely a medical decision."

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On average, even though prisons hold many times more men and women than local jails, more people take their own lives in jails. 

According to the Department of Justice, people in jail are seven times more likely to take their own lives than those housed in prisons.

At the most basic level, prison is where they're going to serve time. Jail is where people are taken when they're first arrested or while they await trial. 

Commissioner Liberty says the period of time when people are in jail, grappling with their crime and perhaps recognizing their life has been completely altered, is when they're most at risk for suicidal thoughts.

At the county jails in Maine, there have been eleven suicides in the last five years.

Nine of the jails had one suicide. Washington County Jail had two. 

At Maine's six adult prisons, comparatively, there have only been two suicides in the last five years.

"Rarely does it happen in Maine," says Liberty. "I think the sheriffs do a good job of identifying people at risk and then following procedure to make sure they're safe."

However, like in all law enforcement ranks, there is a national shortage of correctional officers.

Commissioner Liberty says it's difficult to find and keep workers because of the high risk of violence, long hours and low pay.

"The jobs don't pay what they should probably, and it's a tough job," says Liberty. 

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