When Sonia Branch gets the call, she grabs her Bible, checks her composure and focuses her mind.
She heads to her observation post and every five minutes writes down the actions and behavior of the person she is watching. She maintains her watch until someone comes to relieve her.
“I would stay up all night if I had to,” she said.
Branch is one of more than 200 Idaho prison inmates who volunteer to help prevent prison suicides by helping staff stand watch over suicidal people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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“You can see the relief in these girls’ faces when another inmate comes in to sit and talk to them and comfort them and tell them everything is going to be OK,” said Branch, an inmate at the minimum-security South Boise Women’s Correctional Center.
The Idaho Department of Correction has about 8,000 inmates housed in 10 prisons around the state. It has averaged about 750 suicide watches annually over the past five years.
Director Kevin Kempf was a warden at the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino, a men’s prison, in 2004 when then-Director Tom Beauclair started the inmate companion program, which is modeled on a Federal Bureau of Prisons program.
“It was a very innovative program at the time,” Kempf said. “Frankly, I was skeptical. Do we really want inmates to be overseeing other inmates?
“Of course, the success of it has proven that it does work. Since 2004, we have not had one inmate who has been under the suicide watch program complete a suicide. Pretty good statistic. Something we are very proud of.”
Staff, inmates benefit
Three inmates at the women’s prison south of Boise offered the Idaho Statesman varied reasons for taking part.
Branch, 62, of Emmett, averages about three watches per month. She is serving 20 years for grand theft. She spent two and a half years in the Gem County jail before being transferred to the Boise prison. During her first week there, an inmate she had met tried to kill herself.
“I had spiritually found hope through my minister, who came in to see me once a week [in the county jail],” Branch said. “I wanted to give that back to someone else. I wanted these people to know that they did have hope because when they got to that point they just seemed so hopeless.”
Sharon Shuster, 48, from Homedale, has taken part in about 90 watches. Shuster is serving a four-year sentence for driving under the influence. She said her sister is suicidal, and her brother killed himself when she was 13.
“As someone who suffers from depression, it helps me to get outside of myself,” Shuster said. “If you get too wrapped up in your own thoughts it actually makes your depression worse.”
Asea Andra, 28, of Boise, just joined the program and has helped with three watches. Andra is serving an eight-year sentence for aiding and abetting a burglary.
“I learned in the [Alcoholics Anonymous] 12 steps that you have to give back by giving up yourself,” she said.
None of us are in here for being good. As badly as I want to fix that, it can never be fixed. This contributes to giving back to the community. I really feel good about that.
Idaho Department of Correction inmate Sonia Branch, a volunteer inmate companion
Fifteen of every 100,000 prison inmates take their lives each year, compared with 13 in the general population, according to federal data. The Idaho Department of Correction has reported 13 suicides since 2011, an average of about two per year.
Eight of Idaho’s 10 prisons now have companion programs. Inmate companions are paid 30 cents an hour for watch shifts at most prisons; at some, the inmates are not paid, but Kempf said he expects that to change by January.
Inmates who want to volunteer are screened first. They 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.
“We want to make sure they are a good fit,” Kempf said.
Inmates receive four hours of training and attend co-watch shifts with experienced companions before taking shifts on their own.
“They teach us what to say, what not to say, what we can talk about to get the people distracted from what they are thinking about,” Branch said.
Deputy Warden Audrey Dowell, who manages the department’s education and behavioral health programs, said that 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 the three types of watch:
▪ 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.
▪ Nonacute watch, for potentially or inactively suicidal inmates 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.
▪ Close observation, for inmates with increased psychotic or mental health symptoms that require placement in a holding cell for stabilization. Inmate companions assist the staff here, too.
Each companion takes a three- to four-hour shift. Every 15 minutes a prison officer or health worker checks on the inmate.
“It is therapeutic for me to feel like I am there for someone — maybe preventing someone from doing that,” Shuster said. “I would like to do work with the suicide prevention hotline when I get out. It is just something I am really passionate about.”
When Branch is 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.
“I ask them where they are from ... try to get an idea if they are still connected with their families,” she said. “If they are, you can start talking about their families ... and about how anything they may do to themselves, how much it will hurt their families.”
But for inmates who do not have, or are cut off from, their families, or who may have recently lost someone, asking about family can make things worse, she said.
Branch said finding a connection point led to one of her most successful interactions with a suicidal inmate.
“It was a young girl, she was very young. She was crying,” she said. “I started talking to her about her animals. We started talking about horses. She is a horse person and I am a horse person. She just came out of it talking about her animals.”
The volunteers are taught to keep what the inmates tell them in confidence.
“It gives them a sense of safety, knowing that you are not going out there and gossiping about what they are going through,” Shuster said.
What makes the inmate companion program so successful is that the companions are peers, Kempf said.
“Sometimes our uniforms can look pretty daunting,” he said. “I think a lot of good things comes with peer support.”
How inmates die
Causes of Idaho Department of Correction inmate deaths, 2001-13
Illness/natural causes: 142
Drug/alcohol overdose: 1
Source: U.S. Department of Justice
Shared experience breeds empathy
Inmate companions Sonia Branch, Sharon Shuster and Asea Andra agree that the shared realities of prison life help them empathize with suicidal inmates.
“We have gone through and been through a lot of the same things, so we can completely understand where we are at in life, what we have lost, what we gained and then lost again,” Andra said.
Shuster said she became suicidal in 2013, early in her sentence at the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center, after getting into trouble and spending 55 days in solitary confinement. While in “the hole,” she started “catastrophizing” that her behavior meant she would have to serve her full 10-year sentence instead of getting out in four years. (It did not. She gets out in January.)
“I worked myself into a frenzy,” she said. “I went into a downward spiral. I felt very hopeless.”
She did not reach out to staffers or inmates in the companion program.
“I did not want to be put on a suicide watch,” she said. “I was scared of it. The stigma.
“It made me feel very alone to suffer through it by myself. If I had reached out for help, it would not have been so traumatic, and somebody could have helped me put it into perspective. In hindsight, I wish I would have reached out for help.”