It’s national suicide awareness week. These inmates are looking out for those who feel hopeless.

It’s national suicide awareness week. These inmates are looking out for those who feel hopeless.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The number of inmates who have committed suicide across the South Carolina state prison system is lower than its been in the last three years and officials are crediting a program begin expanded at Broad River Correctional Institution.

Currently, there are two units within the system where inmate mentors are trained as mental health companions and help assist with looking after other inmates who are on suicide watch.

The inmates receive their associates or bachelors degree from Columbia International University, who partners with Kirkland Correctional Institution. Inmates within the program also go through mental health training with the department’s chief psychologist.

The program has been in place for three and a half years and so far, 2019 has seen the fewest number of suicides. Of the four suicides that have taken place across the system this year, none of occurred within the CSU dorm at Broad River Correctional, where the program is in place.

“It just helps them to get something off their mind, so as I listen and gain their trust in that way, I’m able to speak more life into them that way,” one inmate said. “Sometimes that’s all they need is someone to listen, they feel like they’re abandoned, they have no hope, they feel like nobody cares and they feel like they’re at the breaking point of their lives. And when they’re at their breaking point in their life they have nothing else to do other than resort back to harming themselves because they feel like they’re all alone.”

Many of the inmates who are in the program are serving life sentences, while others only plan to be incarcerated for a few years. Still, all of the men said they feel like they have a purpose during their time behind bars thanks to the program.

“It’s the most meaningful thing I think I’ve ever done in my life. It’s funny to say that in prison but it’s the most meaningful thing,” another inmate said. “You’re helping somebody, you’re making a life or death…the value of human life is so important.”

The dorm currently houses 25 inmates from prisons across the state who are deemed suicidal. Once they arrive at the dorm, they are given the proper medical treatment needed and are accompanied all day by their respective mental health companions, who listen and empathize with their situations.

“I didn’t see when I was 17, 18, facing a life sentence, it was hard for me to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” an inmate who has served 25 years incarcerated said. “But now I can tell them, looking back over 25 years, there’s definitely a reason for hope.”

Since the program began in 2016, one person has died by suicide within the dorm. The inmates involved in the program said that’s one too many.

“One person died here, succeeded, and he’ll be the last one,” an inmate said. “I remember his name and I’ll never forget it. But never again.”

SCDC officials said 25 percent of the inmates within the system suffer from mental health issues and there is a direct correlation between those issues and suicidal tendencies, according to Director Bryan Stirling.

In 2018, the department experienced 12 suicides. In 2017, it saw six and in 2016 it saw five. In response to the suicides in 2018, SCDC partnered with MUSC to examine suicide data from the past three years. The study aims to identify systemic causes and offer solutions and the results should be available this week.

Currently, 32 inmate companions work 4-hour shifts. SCDC plans to expand the program at Broad River Correctional to 64 inmate companions as funding becomes available. The program also recently began at Perry Correctional Institution, where 10 inmates have completed training.

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