Scott Martin

Scott Martin

Efforts to deal with mental-health issues in jails and prisons have been ongoing for many years, and facilities nationwide continue to grapple with the issue.  It is a topic that becomes even more important when dealing with an increased number of attempted and successful suicides.

Related: 15 lost to suicide at Lancaster County Prison

This is a frustrating subject for many who work with the inmates in Lancaster County Prison.  As was discussed during our recent prison board meeting, there are multiple steps taken every day by staff and service providers to try to prevent the more than 6,000 people annually who come through our doors, especially offenders dealing with mental illness, from hurting themselves.  Those who also are detoxing or entering prison for the first time have an increased likelihood of attempting suicide.  We've especially seen that with the explosion of opiate abuse, especially heroin, in our community over the last few years.

Even though the rate of suicide is lower in prison than in society in general, the biggest frustration is that access to mental-health care and intervention in jail is much improved and available to inmates, especially since 2007.  When you add in more services from Mental Health America, started this past summer, there's a wide array of services being provided to our inmates.  We've even had a national expert analyze our facility and make recommendations to assist in trying to prevent suicide.

We have had many valiant efforts by our staff, including lifesaving measures, to thwart suicide attempts, yet we still face multiple challenges.  The closures of state hospitals, the refusal of hospital-based mental-health units to accept inmates and the compounding impact of drug abuse in the community have come together to create the perfect storm.  Many of the individuals we encounter have had several years, even decades of problems that cause even further issues.

With the closing of state hospitals and denial to mental-health-unit facilities locally, we've had to increase our mental-health services, but we're still not in a position to be a true rehabilitative replacement for those facilities. Rather, the kinds of services being provided really fall more in the line of continuing mental health medications from outside, identifying (in very limited ways) new mental health diagnoses and appropriate pharmaceutical treatments during incarceration, and helping to stabilize the inmates so that they're not a danger to themselves or others.  We're not necessarily able to help cure their mental illness and, unlike the juvenile justice system, we cannot force anyone to comply with the limited treatment modalities we can offer.

Feelings of guilt drive some to suicidal thoughts, and intentional deceptions can frustrate even well- designed suicide-prevention efforts. Some bent on committing suicide continue to tell counselors or guards how good they feel so they can be put on less restrictive watches.  Or they create problems with other cellmates so as to be housed alone. Or they systematically wait for the checks by corrections officers so they can time their attempt without it being stopped.

Over the years we have implemented many changes to policies and procedures, and made physical changes to cells to prevent the new ways prisoners find to harm themselves.  We've encouraged other inmates to speak to staff if another inmate talks of suicide.  Unfortunately, that does not always occur.

We continue to stress to family and friends who receive calls from inmates to immediately contact the jail and report anything that might suggest that they intend to harm themselves.  Unfortunately, this does not always occur.   Additionally, we are trying to set up a suicide hotline to provide families and friends direct access to the prison's medical department.  As the warden indicated at our last prison board meeting, it takes the entire community, including the family and friends of our incarcerated, to help prevent suicide.

Any time that an individual makes the decision to take his own life, it is tragic for all involved.  We have seen a growing trend of individuals committing suicide not just in our prison but across our community.  Whether it's the rash of jumpers from parking garages, bridges or hotels, or the shocking numbers of suicides we read about in the monthly coroner's reports, it's an issue we need to get our heads around throughout our community.

Lancaster County Prison will vigorously analyze these latest incidents and make whatever changes that can be made as it is our goal to prevent these heartbreaking tragedies from continuing to occur.

Lancaster County Commissioner Scott Martin is chairman of the Lancaster County Prison Board.

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