Idaho's "Inmate Companion" Suicide Watch Program puts California to Shame

Kim Pollak

More than 200 Idaho incarcertaed individuals volunteer to help prevent prison suicides by helping staff stand watch over suicidal people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eight of Idaho’s ten prisons, housing about 8,ooo men and women, have what are known as companion programs. Though some were skeptical when the Inmate Companion Program was started in 2004, the program has proven to be successful. Since it was launched, no individuals under the suicide watch program have completed a suicide. (Idaho reports an average of two successful suicides per year.)

People who want to volunteer must have good speaking, listening and writing skills, be physically healthy and mentally stable, and show respect for all people, according to the department’s inmate companion program guide. Participants receive four hours of training and attend co-watch shifts with experienced companions before taking shifts on their own.

When an inmate tries or threatens suicide or displays other mental health symptoms, medical staffers evaluate the inmate and place him or her under one of three types of watch:

1. Acute suicide watch, for actively suicidal inmates who have already injured themselves or threaten suicide with a specific plan. Staff members maintain constant, direct observation at all times, and inmate companions are not used.
2. Nonacute watch, for potentially or inactively suicidal individuals who either express tendencies without a specific threat or plan, or who have a recent history of self-destructive behavior. Inmate Companions assist the staff.
3. Close observation, for those with increased psychotic or mental health symptoms that (supposedly) require placement in a holding cell for stabilization. Inmate Companions assist the staff here, too.
4. Each companion takes a three- to four-hour shift. Every 15 minutes a prison officer or health worker checks on the the individual who is suicidal.

One companion explained that when she’s assigned to a suicide watch, she starts by introducing herself and asking a few questions, trying to find a connection and to learn which topics to avoid. The volunteers are taught to keep what the inmates tell them in confidence.

Kevin Kempf, Idaho Director of Department of Corrections states that what makes the inmate companion program so successful is that the companions are peers. “...a lot of good things comes with peer support.”

The peer support program provides an opportunity for healing to both the individuals under suicide watch as well as for their support companions. According to one companion, “It is therapeutic for me to feel like I am there for someone.” Another stated, “As someone who suffers from depression, it helps me to get outside of myself."

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