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Suicide Attempts On Rise; Corrections Officials Stress Prevention

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VPR/John Dillon
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Vermont has seen an increase in the number of suicide attempts in the state’s prison population.

That disclosure from a state official came as a legislative oversight committee focused on prisoner mental health following the suicide death of an inmate last month.

Thirty-eight year old Robert Mossey died after he hanged himself in a mop closet late last month inside the Newport prison.

His family came to the Statehouse to ask if the state could have done more to prevent the tragedy. Todd Jimmo, a former corrections guard and Mossey’s step-father, said under-staffing at the Newport facility could be part of the problem.

“As a former corrections officer, you can’t prevent everything. But had the staffing been better it probably would have been less likely,” he said. “From what I’m understanding the unit officer was really busy and knowing inmates the way I do, they tend to get in there and they learn your habits and when is the best time to pull something off that they’re not supposed to do.”

Corrections officials defended their work on suicide prevention and mental health screening before the legislative oversight hearing. Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said Mossey’s was the first successful suicide within the system in nine years.

“But when we have a suicide that is successful I don’t want to just jump to the conclusion that staff did necessarily anything wrong,” he said. “Sitting here, I don’t have an indication that there is any misconduct.”

The number of suicide attempts, however, has increased in recent months at Vermont prisons, according to Dr. Delores Burroughs-Biron, the health services director for the Department of Corrections. In addition to the suicide attempts, her report to the oversight committee showed the department recorded 49 cases of inmates harming themselves in June.

Prisoners are at a greater risk of suicide than the general population, Burroughs-Biron said.

“It is the despair, the sense of hopelessness that comes about as a result of being incarcerated. And for some people, time and time again, they are incarcerated,” she said.

Dr. Burroughs-Biron said fellow inmates can be the best source for when a prisoner is in crisis. But she said the prison culture works against inmates talking about each others to officials in authority.

“It is a prison and snitching is not a good thing. I think that attitude about not being a snitch unfortunately – telling on other people – does pervade in that area,” she said.

Todd Jimmo – the step father of the inmate who recently died – said that as a corrections officer he was trained to look for signs of potential suicide.

“I had ten years of suicide prevention training at the department of corrections. I missed it. And I’m his step-father,” he said.

But the oversight committee wanted to know if the training was adequate. Corrections officials said guards received a total of eight hours of suicide prevention training in a five week course.