The NCLBC shall exercise unified political power for the betterment of people of color and consequently, all North Carolinians.

Suicide watch test program will recruit NC inmates

April 16th, 2019

— State officials responding to an increase in inmate suicides will launch a pilot project later this year to have inmates watch other inmates who are considered suicide risks, the prison system’s head of behavioral health services told legislators Monday.

Similar projects in other states and the federal level have seen “huge success,” Behavioral Health Director Gary Junker told lawmakers.

Inmates would get training, and they would make notes every 15 minutes during their watch, Junker said. They wouldd call staff for help if needed, he said.

The plan is to start the pilot program later this year at Mountain View Correctional Institution near Spruce Pine. The project is still in the planning stages, and officials haven’t decided how many offenders will be chosen, but it will probably be about a dozen, Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull said in an email.

The state prison system has been under increased scrutiny in recent years for a number of reasons, including a spike in suicides. The Charlotte Observer reported earlier this year that a record 12 inmates in state custody committed suicide in 2018, compared with six in 2017 and seven in 2016, despite the state implementing a suicide prevention plan in 2016.

One of those 12 deaths from 2018 is still under review and may have been accidental, Junker told lawmakers.

The state formed a task force because of the spike, and the pilot program is one of the group’s projects. Missed checks seem to have been a problem in some prison deaths, and the system often has trouble attracting and keeping staff, particularly in a strong economy.

The program was mentioned as part of a broader presentation Monday to a Senate committee looking at prison safety issues. Junker also told lawmakers that the demand for substance abuse treatment in the prison system far outstrips available treatment slots.

Last year, the system identified six inmates with substance abuse issues for every slot funded, he said.

The system also has seen an uptick in people with mental health issues in state prisons, Junker said, with the percentage of offenders with a mental illness nearly doubling since 2007. As of March, it was just over 18 percent, he said, and the numbers in local jails are often higher.

Junker asked lawmakers to fund more diversion programs and drug courts to keep people out of the state prisons altogether.

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