Sheriff details protocol for suicidal inmates

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County Jail has procedures in place for dealing with inmates who attempt suicide or express suicidal thoughts, Sheriff Brian McLean said.

At a recent meeting of the county’s jail task force, McLean described one period during which inmates made 13 suicide attempts. Those came over 12 months between 2012 and 2013, including two attempts by a former prison inmate, McLean said Wednesday.

Some attempts were minor, McLean said.

“They would just tell the corrections officer ‘I think I’m going to end it’ and tie the bedsheet around their neck,” he said. “Maybe they’d just sit there with that. It’s enough to indicate we’ve got to get Mental Health involved and take them for an eval and get them checked out.”

Persistent overcrowding at the jail was likely a factor, McLean said. It could also have been exacerbated by that particular mix of people.

“It was just an oddball year,” McLean said. “We’ve never, ever seen that before. I don’t know of any jail in the U.P. that had that many in a year period like that.”

The attempts and tense atmosphere led two corrections officers, each with more than 20 years’ experience, to leave, McLean said.

Since that period, attempts have returned to their historical norm of one to two per year, McLean said.

When inmates mention feeling suicidal, corrections staff watch them more closely, McLean said. Mental health professionals will be notified to come to the jail to talk to the person. If inmates add a physical act, that activates the jail’s suicide protocol. The jail notifies an on-call doctor as well as a mental health organization. The worker will either come to the jail, or in serious cases, to a hospital emergency room.

“If they’re going to be involuntarily committed, the signature has to include a physician as well as a mental health worker, so the two work in tandem with them,” McLean said.

If necessary, inmates are transferred to a psychiatric facility. When done there, they will in most cases return to the jail. In some instances, a judge may release them on bond and put them back into the mental health system, McLean said.

Those inmates who come back to the jail are placed under a tighter watch.

“After a few days away, it seems like they come back better,” McLean said. “As long as they behave themselves for several days, it’s back to normal supervision, and they’ll go back to general population.”

Even before inmates talk of suicide, corrections officers have a good feel for their mood, McLean said. In general, the most dangerous time is within the first 24 hours in jail, as inmates are confronted with the reality of jail, McLean said.

A new or larger jail would not prevent depression among those predisposed to it, McLean said. However, he said it could potentially allow for better observation of inmates, as well as more flexibility to isolate inmates or group them together.

“In a lot of cases, it’s better that a person not be housed with anybody,” he said. “In some cases, housing them with other inmates gives them a camaraderie … it all depends on the personality of the inmate.”

Inmates would also benefit from having a space for daily programs, McLean said. The jail has no dedicated library or activity room. There is an outside recreation space; however, it can only be used during the summer when it’s not raining and when the circuit court is out of session.

Otherwise, inmates’ recreation outside the cell consists of supervised walks around the cell block in four- or five-inmate groups.

“Other than that, it’s like you’re locked in your bedroom at home for months at a time,” McLean said. “So the additional space could improve the mood.”