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Lawmakers probe prison suicide

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"They needed to see his family," said Ellie Jimmo, whose son, RJ Mossey, hanged himself this summer in the state prison in Newport.

Jimmo wanted Vermont lawmakers to see her son's face when they talked about prison suicides Monday.  "He's a son, a dad, a brother, an uncle -- and I just wanted to have a face to go with this meeting," she told members of the Corrections Oversight Committee.

The committee questioned prison officials about how suicidal inmates are identified and supervised on the inside.

"The officer may place that individual on close and continuous observation," Corrections' Health Services Director Dr. Delores Burroughs-Biron told the committee. She says corrections officers get five weeks of training, including eight hours specific to identifying self-harm behavior -- then two hours of follow up training annually.

Each Vermont inmate is screened when they enter jail.  Officers use a survey -- common nationwide.  Results go to a supervisor and mental health provider , and is flagged if concerns are raised.  A second screening is performed by a prison nurse.

"If there's been an attempt at self-harm or verbalization, there is notification," Dr. Burroughs-Biron said.

Lawmakers were careful not to discuss RJ Mossey's suicide -- and whether more could have been done to prevent it.  Three investigations, including a state police review, are still out and not due back until November.   

"The best we can do is hope our staff recognizes and intervenes," said Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito.
Pallito says until investigators wrap up, it won't be clear if changes are needed.

Corrections is seeing a rise in self-harm incidents. They've steadily increased since 2008 with 522 reported last year. But Corrections officials say the most serious incidents, what they call near fatal injuries, dropped to three in 2012 -- down from eight the year before.  

RJ Mossey's suicide was the first in Vermont prisons since 2004.  Corrections officials say that record is a success given the population it sees -- people dealing with poverty, mental health and drug problems and family trouble. "Once people are with us they face the reality of long sentences in jail -- isolation from friends and family," Pallito said.

And a spike in detainees is adding to the challenges. Vermont prisons saw a record high -- 475 -- earlier this month.  That means shuffling inmates around.
"That number turns over a lot and that's a real problem for the Department of Corrections," Pallito said

Ellie Jimmo hopes the investigation into her son's suicide leads to changes. "That they keep a closer eye on inmates," she said. "I am afraid that RJ will be a statistic that falls through the cracks."

Whether lawmakers will call for changes depends on what the investigations reveal.  The committee plans to meet again in November after getting those reviews.

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