Prison suicide watches done by other inmates, instead of prison staff, reduce the frequency and duration of watches, benefit inmate observers and reduce costs, according to a study conducted by Federal Bureau of Prisons researchers that appears in the summer-fall issue of Psychological Services (Vol. 2, No. 1).
The researchers, led by psychologist Gary Junker, PhD, of the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., tracked suicide watches for two 12-week periods among inmates at the Federal Bureau of Prisons Medical Referral Center, which provides mental and physical health care to inmates throughout the federal penal system. During one of those sessions, institution staff conducted the watches, as is typical in prisons; during the other, inmates did the watching.
Junker and his team selected inmate observers from a group of inmates that work and live at the medical center, but who are not mentally or physically ill, Junker says. A psychologist trained the observers to watch suicidal peers, record log entries at 15-minute intervals and call for assistance during emergencies. The psychologist also gave the observers information about suicidal behaviors, active listening and confidentiality. The inmate observers did not have access to the patient records and were instructed that their job was to observe, not counsel.
For psychotic inmates on suicide watch, the average number of hours spent under watch dropped significantly when inmates were doing the watching, from about 100 hours with staff observers to about 65 hours with inmate observers, Junker says. Results for inmates with personality disorders and mood disorders were less clear, but the researchers found no negative effects.
It's not clear yet why suicide watch durations shrink with inmate watchers. Junker says it could be that spending time with a peer reduces stress. In addition, suicidal inmates sometimes harm themselves to manipulate staff, a situation removed by the inmate observers.
The arrangement can benefit observers as well; being an observer is a chance for inmates to demonstrate social interest and practice prosocial behavior, which increase the chance for success upon leaving prison, Junker says. And the prison benefits too: In this case, the medical center saved over $300,000 in overtime pay by using inmate observers for a year.
"In this time of limited resources, it's rare to find a solution that cuts costs and benefits all parties," Junker says. "I think other prison systems could benefit as well."