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State must do more to prevent prison suicides

All suicides mentioned occurred in DECEMBER a bad time for inmates.
1-6-2009 Michigan:

A new administrator charged with improving Michigan's dysfunctional prison health care system has a lot on her plate in 2009, but looking into prison suicides must become an immediate priority.

Three state prisoners committed suicide within one week during late December -- as many as committed suicide in all of 2007. The Michigan Department of Corrections must ensure that prison staff are trained to spot signs of dangerous depression and know when to make appropriate referrals to mental health professionals. Ensuring such training and competence falls squarely on the department's health care quality assurance administrator -- a new position that reports directly to MDOC Director Patricia Caruso.

An estimated one in four of Michigan's nearly 50,000 inmates is mentally ill, increasing the risks of suicide. Those risks naturally increase during periods of stress, including the holidays, parole denials, initial incarceration, or following a return to prison.

Tina Marie Schleben, 29, serving 1-15 years for forgery, larceny and drug convictions, hung herself with sheets at the Huron Valley women's prison in Ypsilanti on Dec. 27. She died the next day, said MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan.

Gary R. Whited, 37, serving 7 to 15 years for criminal sexual conduct, died in an apparent suicide at Parnell Correctional Facility in Jackson on Dec. 23. The Department of Corrections and Michigan State Police are investigating, but pills were found in Whited's cell.

On Dec. 29, Eric Snider, 43, serving a life sentence for murder at Alger Maximum Correctional Facility in Munising, also hung himself with sheets.

One inmate said Schleben had been severely depressed, after she returned to prison for parole violations three months ago, but that corrections staff did not take her condition seriously. MDOC's internal affairs staff and the health care quality assurance administrator will investigate the suicides, Marlan said, and determine whether mental health care staff interacted with the inmates.

Over the last decade, Michigan's prison system has averaged seven suicides a year. To be sure, the problem is not unique to Michigan. In fact, a U.S. Department of Justice report in 2005 showed that Michigan was slightly below the national average in prison suicides. MDOC has not yet compiled suicide statistics for 2008.

Still, a rash of suicides at year's end is especially troubling given the department's record on health care in general. It should prompt the department to thoroughly investigate whether staff could have prevented these deaths and make whatever changes are necessary to help prevent them in the future. ..News Source.. Opinion of the Detroit Free Press

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