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Carlos Javier Ortiz
Illinois Youth Prisons See More Suicide Attempts
February 24, 2010
By Adriene Hill
Last September, a young man incarcerated at one of Illinois’ youth prisons killed himself.
Suicides at the eight facilities run by the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice are rare.
But suicide attempts are not.
In budget year 2009, the number of suicide attempts was at its highest level since 2005, before the department split off from adult prisons.
As part of our series, Inside and Out, WBEZ’s Adriene Hill reports.
You can look at the numbers for yourself and give us your thoughts at www.wbez.org/insideandout.
The Department of Juvenile Justice has said very little about the suicide of the young man at its St. Charles facility in the Western suburbs of Chicago.
We don’t know his name.
We do know that he was 16 and that he died by asphyxiation.
Based on state purchasing documents, we know that his death was “facilitated” by a double bunk bed.
CONNELL: What they have at St. Charles are beds where youngster can very easily tie a piece of a sheet or clothing that they’ve ripped apart. What ever the item, they can use it to hang themselves.
Patricia Connell is the juvenile justice consultant to the prison watchdog John Howard Association.
John Howard visited the facility after the suicide and found the furnishings at St. Charles present all sorts of opportunities for self-harm.
CONNELL: There are ways to make places less likely to present the possibility of suicide for a young person who’s in trouble.
For its part, the state is working on making some of those changes; they’re adding suicide resistant beds to St. Charles in the next week.
On a tour at the youth prison in Chicago, Acting Superintendent Earl Merritt points out some anti-suicide fixtures and furniture.
MERRITT: This facility was designed to be suicide proof. You’ll find very few sharp edges, corners or anything like that. There’s nothing here that will support a body.
But not every youth facility is equipped like the one in Chicago.
And there were nearly 500 suicide attempts at Illinois youth prisons this past budget year.
At any one time, the prisons hold about 1500 young people.
Kurt Friedenauer is director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.
He says the issue of suicide in youth prisons is complicated, a majority of the young people in the system come in with mental health issues.
FRIEDENAUER: Many of them who engage in these kind of behaviors have a significant history of those behaviors before they ever got to us.
Friedenauer says all sorts of factors go into suicide attempts.
But he says the state has been changing practices that contribute to suicide risk.
It’s reducing the use of confinement or isolation.
And he says the state’s also trying to limit idle time for youth.
FRIEDENAUER: a better job of identification of those youth, responding in those incidents, providing better training to staff, and also keeping kids more actively and constructively engaged.
Of the data we received from the state , one of the most striking upticks is the increase in the number of serious suicide attempts at the primary girls prison in Warrenville in Northern Illinois.
The number of serious attempts, those where the youth requires medical attention or whose attempt is believed to be potentially lethal, rose from just 2 in 2008 to 14 last year and is on track to be high again.
Friedenauer says there’s no single factor. A girl who cuts herself multiple times, for instance, would be counted each time. But another explanation the director focused on is the increased attention to trauma therapy and counseling at the facility.
FRIEDENAUER: I believe that as girls are working through their trauma issue is does bring out other issues and it may be that some of that then is that as they’re working through the recovery of treatment process manifests itself in some increase in those behaviors.
The idea that treatment is encouraging suicidal thoughts or actions could be a controversial view inside and outside the juvenile justice department and one that needs more scrutiny.
In the meantime, experts coordinated by the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change project are in the process of evaluating behavioral health programs and services at all the youth prisons across the state.