Marion County Jail leaders credit suicide prevention hotline, staff empathy for preventing suicides behind bars

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide while incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City prompted FOX59 to reach out to the Marion County Jail to understand how the staff there prevents suicides of people in custody.

If someone in jail is thinking of committing suicide, or a family member learns of suicidal thoughts from an incarcerated person during a phone call, they are urged to call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 317-327-1461The sheriff’s office launched this hotline in September 2016. In the nearly three years since, the hotline has received four million calls.

“It’s not uncommon on the suicide hotline that it’s one inmate calling about another,” Marion County Sheriff’s Office Policy Adviser Louis Dezelan said.

Marion County’s two jails can house 2,507 people. Recently, 2,400 people have been incarcerated. Dezelan said 350 of the population are convicted and sentenced.

“The rest are waiting to go to trial,” Dezelan said. “Our sense is you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

When a person in brought into the jail, the sheriff’s office said they are screened for “suicidal ideation” upon intake. If they are suicidal, they are put on suicide watch and will not be taken off until one of the qualified behavioral health professionals in the jail gives approval.

Suicide watch inside the jail includes 43 units which are monitored by surveillance cameras 24/7. They are watched by jail control operators and the cameras continuously switch from cell to cell. Dezelan said each person on watch is checked on every three to 15 minutes.

“We also have clothing that they can wear that can’t be shredded, turned into a rope,”  Dezelan said.

So far in 2019, one person has committed suicide at the MCJ. From 2013-2019, the sheriff’s office reports 12 suicides inside the jail:

  • 2015 – 4
  • 2016 – 3
  • 2017 – 2
  • 2018 – 2
  • 2019 YTD – 1

“While we have suffered some suicides over the years, none of those people were on suicide watch,” Dezelan explained.

The sheriff’s office also sent FOX59 a breakdown of suicide attempts that deputies stopped:

  • 2015 – 4
  • 2016 – 8
  • 2017 – 3
  • 2018 – 2
  • 2019 YTD – 4

“We’re all human beings and we’re responsible for one another, I think,” Dezelan said. “The individuals that are here, they’re an unhealthy population.”

Dezelan said 40 percent of people incarcerated at the Marion County Jail have mental health issues. Eighty-five percent of them suffer from substance abuse issues. Dezlan said there are 81 programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, for those incarcerated.

“Even though they are in our care, they are treated like we would want someone to treat our family members,” Dezelan said.

Dezelan said the suicides that happened inside the jail all happened within three days of incarceration. He added the cell takes its toll on someone facing time behind bars.

“Possibly somebody who’s facing a long prison term, somebody who’s committed a crime they’re very much ashamed of,” Dezelan said. “If you’re addicted to drugs, you’re facing time where you have to get off of those drugs.”

As for the department’s staff that has contact with people incarcerated, they receive suicide prevention training annually as part of their accreditation with the American Correctional Association. This training is not required by law. The staff also receives useful information for suicide prevention from Correct Care Solutions which provides medical services.

“We adhere to these policies and programs strictly and strenuously,” Lt. Mitchell Gore said

The sheriff’s office also has a suicide focus group made up of people working in security, mental health, medical care, programming and chaplaincy. This group meets with those in the suicidal units at least once a month.

“We spend probably $14, $15 million a year on the health care of the inmates,” Dezelan said.

There’s also a behavioral manager program, which is funded by a grant, that pays social workers to help people incarcerated. Dezelan said over the last couple of years, they have connected 1,000 people to proper care after they are released from jail.

Ninety-four detention deputies are now a part of the jail’s team. The sheriff’s office said more staff, and more attentive staff who are not on mandated overtime status, is crucial in preventing suicides.

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