DISTRICT CORRECTIONAL officials say they have made significant progress in strengthening policies and practices to prevent jail suicides. We hope they are right. An encouraging sign was the decision to commission — and make public — an independent review that cast an unforgiving spotlight on the Department of Corrections’ shortcomings.
In the aftermath of four suicides at the D.C. jail in the past year, Corrections Director Thomas Faust enlisted national experts to examine protocols and personnel and recommend changes. A report by Lindsay M. Hayes, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, was unsparing in its criticism.
There were 165 attempted suicides over a two-year period. Poorly designed facilities were partly to blame, as were poorly trained health providers and corrections officers, who were not equipped to assess who was at risk or to take appropriate actions. Cases of inmates left naked and in isolation were detailed, as was the horrifying instance of inmates assigned to clean up the bloody aftermath of a suicide. One of the inmates in the latter group, suffering from bipolar disorder, had to undergo therapy after the assignment.
The report by Mr. Hayes provided the foundation for corrective actions. Inmates will now share cells, the restricted use of razors has been eliminated, intake and screenings are more robust and suicide awareness is more of a priority. Mr. Faust said the administration has given him $600,000 in additional funds to retrain staff, the most critical issue, and to make more cells in the 38-year-old jail more suicide-resistant.
It’s troubling that it took four suicides and 165 attempts for officials to realize they had a problem. So it’s understandable that Mr. Faust came under harsh questioning this week from D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) during an oversight hearing. What’s important, though, is not whether officials should have disclosed the Sept. 13 report sooner but rather why it took so long to commission it. Even more significant is whether its recommendations for action have been taken to heart and whether suicide prevention becomes and remains a priority for the jail.