How Vermont handles suicide watches in prisons

WATERBURY, Vt. (WCAX) Questions are being raised about why accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was taken off suicide watch just days after he'd allegedly tried to harm himself.

We wanted to know how our Corrections Department deals with suicide prevention and intervention in Vermont's facilities.

Our Christina Guessferd looked into the state's procedures and learned the Department of Corrections has a full and clear set of guidelines to keep inmates as safe as possible.

"There's no possible guarantees in any correctional system that you can prevent any and all suicides," Vt. Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette said.

But Touchette says tackling that challenge is a top priority. Staff members are tasked with questioning suicidal or self-harming individuals to determine how much attention they need to keep them safe.

The department follows this scale:

-A yellow assessment means the inmate can stay housed in the general population but should be checked on regularly.

-Orange means they should be observed closely.

-Red indicates a highly at-risk inmate who needs constant supervision and may need to be relocated to a cell with a camera or put in a special uniform called a Ferguson Smock, which is virtually indestructible.

"It is not uncommon, though, for us to step people down fairly quickly. It's a pretty invasive process to be A) being watched 24 hours a day, and the Ferguson safety smocks-- it's not a long-term solution," Touchette said.

Touchette says the long-term solution is providing a network of support systems within facilities ranging from mental health professionals to peer counselors, called open-ears coaches. He says both undergo intensive training to address suicidal ideation.

"This is a community, and much like in our own communities and our own families, when somebody's struggling, whether or not you're connected to them, humans are empathetic and we can understand," Touchette said.

He says many of Vermont's inmates suffer from depression which mental health professionals say isn't surprising.

"Legal issues can be a huge burden to people. It can make people feel like their whole life is about to change for the negative and that they can't see their way out," said Alison Krompf, the state coordinator for suicide prevention. "So it's really about in the intermediary crisis period, making sure that they do not have access to act on those thoughts, letting them know it's normal to have those thoughts, and then as they move through that grief process, you can start talking about what's a life worth living that's different than the one that you thought you were previously going to have."

But Touchette says getting rid of all potentially deadly materials in a prison is impossible.

"A simple thing such as a paper clip can be sharpened and you can sever an artery with that," Touchette said.

Like the commissioner said, creating a stable environment within the prison where inmates feel comfortable enough to seek help is imperative. The peer counselors are a huge piece of that because they can share those life experiences.