A Wilkes-Barre resident attending her first Luzerne County Council meeting expressed concerns this week about the recent deaths of three female inmates, saying she was touched by a statement from the mother of one of the inmates that her daughter was “just a number” to some.
“I think the people who move through the prison system are part of our community,” Wilkes-Barre resident Collyn Hinchey said. “I think all their well-being is very important.”
The administration briefed council on suicide detection efforts Tuesday and repeatedly stressed that prison employees are vigilant and passionate about preventing deaths.
Two of the three recent deaths were ruled suicides. The county coroner’s office concluded inmates Brooke Griesing and Tricia Cooper died from asphyxiation due to hangings that occurred June 8 and July 25, respectively. The death of Joan Rosengrant July 7 was ruled accidental; it was caused by the combined effect of prescription drugs complicated by her unspecified physical condition.
Hinchey asked council members to request a public report that includes an explanation of procedures to support inmates with mental-health issues and how this protocol can be improved and evaluated to ensure it is effective.
“From the presentation tonight, it sounds like there’s no further action that’s planning to be made public, and that’s discouraging to me because the competency of the officers is not what’s at issue here,” Hinchey said. “It’s the efficacy of what they’re trained to do.”
Sheila Saidman, who is running for county council, praised the work of prison staffers but sought future explanation on the involvement of psychiatrists in the facility and whether formal screening is performed after inmates are booked. For example, inmates might contemplate suicide if they receive no outside visitors or have disturbing visits, she said.
Saidman also requested discussion on protocols for inmates withdrawing from opioids behind bars.
“Sometimes the complete cutting off of that opioid or that drug can in itself cause reaction,” noted Saidman.
County Manager C. David Pedri told the women the matter will be addressed again at the next council meeting Aug. 22.
“We’ll continue to talk about it right here in public,” he said.
‘Absolutely no signs’
Pedri and Mark Rockovich, head of the county’s Correctional Services Division, initially focused their briefing on the two suicide deaths, but Councilwoman Kathy Dobash pressed for information on the Rosengrant fatality.
Suicide can’t be ruled out as a possibility in this case, but the coroner’s office had no evidence the inmate stockpiled any prescribed drugs in an attempt to accrue a fatal dose.
Rockovich told Dobash a nurse crushes prescription medications, places them in a container and administers them to inmates with water, checking to see if they have been swallowed.
There have been cases in which inmates partially swallowed medication and then regurgitated it after they walked away, Rockovich said. He said he will consider any viable protocol options to increase safeguards.
Rockovich highlighted current suicide prevention efforts:
• All prospective corrections officers must complete a four-week training program that includes suicide prevention and awareness.
• Every officer undergoes suicide training annually.
• Law enforcement officers who arrest and transport inmates to the prison must fill out forms documenting whether offenders discussed suicide while in their custody.
• Prison staffers ask incoming inmates to answer 16 questions intended to detect suicidal thoughts and a 20-question survey to measure hopelessness.
• Registered and licensed practical nurses at the prison also separately administer a different 19-question suicide screening because inmates might be more candid responding to a medical provider.
• Prison workers can refer an inmate for additional monitoring at any time during their incarceration if they detect suicidal behavior.
Flagged inmates are placed on suicide watch, which means they physically are checked at least every 15 minutes by correctional officers and possibly by fellow inmates who undergo mental health training. The highest-risk inmates are on “maximum watch” and always are shadowed by an inmate suicide monitor.
Four county inmates were on maximum watch Tuesday, while nine were on standard watch, Rockovich said.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban asked if the three women who died had been on suicide watch.
Rockovich said they were not.
“They showed absolutely no signs that we were aware of that would have placed them on that,” Rockovich said.
Councilman Robert Schnee asked if the prison receives medical history reports showing past inmate suicide attempts.
The prison would not have access to that information unless inmates complete a medical release at some point during their incarceration, Rockovich said.
Schnee asked if family members can alert the prison about inmates’ past suicidal behavior.
Rockovich said this information can be conveyed to the shift supervisor. The prison is setting up a suicide hotline that will be manned at all times, he said.