For the past three years, the S.C. Department of Corrections has tried using inmates to help fellow prisoners who are feeling suicidal.
“We are basically on the front line of suicide prevention,” said one inmate who keeps watch over his peers at Broad River Correctional Institute in Columbia. (The Post and Courier was asked by corrections officials not to identify the inmates by name.)
Even with the program, South Carolina’s inmate suicide rate reached an all-time high last year, at 11, almost double what it was in 2017.
SCDC director and state prisons chief Bryan Stirling said the department is the state's largest provider of mental health care. About one fourth of all state inmates are mental health patients, and many need treatment.
Despite the setbacks, corrections spokesperson Chrysti Shain said staff and inmates hope the program will prevent deaths by suicide.
“You have administrative staff, you have security, you have nursing staff, you have mental health staff,” said another inmate. “And then you have us.”
A report from the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives says while inmate companions have become popular in parts of the country, national correctional standards say they should only supplement, not substitute, for professional staff monitoring.
“When folks initially come here, they’ve shut down. We try to build a rapport with them, we try to get them to communicate,” one inmate said. “I try to tell them, ‘If you don’t tell the counselor everything, then they don’t know how to treat you.' If you try to bake a cake and leave out one of the ingredients, the cake is not quite a cake.”
South Carolina inmates who have shown warning signs for suicide live on the first two floors of a dorm set aside for them at the Broad River complex. Above them are men who are trained to be a listening ear.
Assistant deputy director of behavioral health services Kennard Dubose said some reasons people are admitted to the dorm can be episodes of drug-induced psychosis or receiving bad news from court or from home. The behavioral health services administrator also said a typical stay is 10 to 15 days but can “vary, depending on the situation.”
A group of about 30 prisoners, dubbed the Inmate Health Companions, routinely check on their peers who are on suicide watch. They are prepped with both hospice training and a degree in Biblical studies from the Columbia International University (CIU) seminary.
Though the program training is Bible based, the inmates are taught to listen and find commonalities to talk about.
"We’ll talk to them for half an hour to four hours about the world, about sports, about anything to find something that we have in common,” an inmate companion said.
The Broad River housing unit was designed with a calm light blue tone, with art covering the walls both inside and outside of the TV room. Unit manager Paul Dennis said, it’s supposed to give the place a therapeutic feel.
“We want them to feel their worth,” Dennis said.
The training, formally called the CIU Prison Initiative, does not provide specific counseling training. “They’re trained to listen,” said Grace Dye, a CIU administrator for the program.
Inmate Health Companions say they’ve seen more than 1,000 mental health patients in three years.
But not every day is successful. The suicide numbers are still high as three South Carolina inmates have killed themselves so far this year.
One inmate companion was 16 when he received a life sentence for murder. He said he’s been able to relate to young people serving long sentences, and he often sees inmates come into the housing unit in a dark state of mind, then leave with newfound hope.
One day, a patient asked him, “Can those people get me in here?” believing that someone from his previous institution might somehow find him and hurt him.
The inmate stayed with him, talked and listened for about four hours. Days later, the patient was sent back to his institution. He soon was back at Broad River, in need of help.
“I passed out books that night, and he spent 10 or 15 minutes picking out books,” the inmate companion said. He eventually picked one book and went back to his cell. The patient committed suicide later that night.
“That was probably the most impactful thing that I’ve had to go through,” the inmate companion said, “and it’s why I’m not about to say that somebody is fine.”
The inmates still do what they can for each other.
“And then, in six months time, we get a letter from them, from their parents, from their wife, from their kids, and they’re in society being productive and being responsible,” another inmate companion said. “There’s fruit that takes place from investing in people and being willing to recognize them as a human.”