Imagine looking through a window into a room at someone who’s been forcibly taken from their home, stripped naked and given only a thin vinyl smock to wear instead. The room has a locked door and concrete walls, a steel bunk with no mattress pad, a steel combination toilet-sink and a steel shower that doesn’t work. A vent aimed directly at the bunk blows in frigid air 24/7, even in winter; the idea is that if someone is weakened from the constant cold, it’ll be that much harder for them to kill themselves.
Now imagine that instead of trying to comfort them, you’re supposed to watch from your chair on the other side of the window and take notes. Imagine watching this trauma go on for days or weeks, until you’re watching the moment when it all becomes more than they could bear. But you’re not allowed to intervene or even touch the door. All you do is flag down someone to go get a medical officer, and keep taking notes.
The full extent of suicide prevalence in United States prisons is unknown. But in many facilities, there are no preventative measures in place and no incentive for staff to go out of their way to help. There might be one mental health care worker for every 500 prisoners. But staff aren’t the ones monitoring the cells where prisoners are isolated while they’re considered high-risk for suicide; it’s other prisoners who do the hellish job.
At the facility where I’m incarcerated, suicide watch training was an eight-hour class where we learned how to fill out the paperwork and watched a documentary from the early 2000s about prisons in another state. Then we got a packet about all the things we’re not allowed to do.
“Inmate on watch is pacing around the cell … Inmate used the restroom …”
We’re not allowed to deliver messages to or from anyone on suicide watch. We’re not allowed to read to them. We’re not allowed to bring books down there at all. We’re not allowed to bring them anything, or anything for ourselves except for one meal’s worth of food for personal consumption. No music. We’re advised against extended conversations.
Every shift, we clock in and sit in a chair by the door of the cell to observe the person locked inside. Our job is to then document our observations at random intervals not to exceed 15 minutes. Inmate on watch is pacing around the cell … Inmate used the restroom …
Twice a day an officer will bring a nearly expired ham sandwich and carrots too tough to chew, and push it through a window flap in the door. Nurses deliver medication the same way. We’re not allowed to talk to the nurses, even to ask for our own medication. We’re supposed to get our meds at pill line with everyone else, but we’re not supposed to leave our chairs. Each shift is five hours, but the number of people under observation means we often work double shifts.
In addition to documenting when the prisoner under observation stands up or sits down or takes a piss, we have to document anything in the cell that isn’t supposed to be there. Inmate is in possession of a blanket … Inmate is in possession of a pair of socks …
If they managed to get ahold of a pencil and paper so they can draw, and they hold up their artwork to the window to show us, we could lose our job if we don’t report it. Pencils and paper are contraband.
So frequently is suicide watch utilized for reasons that have nothing to do with suicidal ideation that neither prisoners nor staff take it seriously.
This nightmare is worse to experience than words can convey. For five or 10 hours at a time, you watch a fellow prisoner in agony without lifting a finger to help them. That prisoner watches you watching them and labels you a traitor or a snitch, for collaborating with the medical officers to make their time there more miserable.
Most of the people on suicide watch are not there because of suicide and self-harm. Some people get taken there because they fought another prisoner. Some because they’ve done something to anger the chronically vindictive guards, such as asking a question at the wrong time. Others are there for no other reason than that they’re mentally ill and staff has given up on them.
People who attempt suicide in prison are often violently punished for it when staff take them to solitary. But I’d say about half the people who go on suicide watch “check in” voluntarily. Sometimes they’re trying to get moved to a different housing unit, but usually it’s because of unpaid drug debts. Like in many prisons, the suicide watch cells here are physically separate from the main living units, past a series of high-security doors leading to rooms that are nothing but concrete boxes with no insulation.
The tragedy is that when someone really does try to harm themselves, it’s assumed they’re putting on a show to avoid someone coming to collect their drug debts. So frequently is suicide watch utilized for reasons that have nothing to do with suicidal ideation that neither prisoners nor staff take it seriously anymore.
Suicide observation here pays 85 cents an hour—more than almost any other job on the compound.
Since most of the people on suicide watch are there for reasons unrelated to their mental health, most of them come back on the compound, and they come back understandably pissed off from the experience. Observers can be shunned or cut off from business relationships because of the stigma attached to the job.
But suicide observation here pays 85 cents an hour—more than any other job on the compound except tutoring, which pays $1 an hour but has only four slots. Most jobs pay around 20 cents an hour. And you can still be assigned to another, regular job on top of suicide observation, because this is a voluntary role.
Prisoner suicide watch being delegated to prisoners isn’t new, but the job wasn’t always this hands-off. In a 1995 document on prisoner suicide prevention, the National Institute of Corrections noted that while the practice of using prisoner “companions” was ethically controversial due to poorly defined internal processes, most of them “were conscientious and did an excellent job.”
Since prisoner observers were in such close proximity to the prisoners being observed, the document stated, they were also “given basic training in understanding suicidal behavior, empathic listening and other techniques for building communication.” That way, they had “the skills necessary to communicate more effectively and provide the suicidal inmate with a ready source of peer support.”
Photograph via Clallam County, Washington