If they have not already, two suicides by inmates at the North Central Regional Jail just 10 days apart should raise serious concerns with West Virginia Department of Corrections officials.
On Feb. 24, Harrison County resident, James William Kent, 21, arrested after he allegedly stabbed his brother in the neck, was found hanging in his cell at the Doddridge County facility. Corrections officers were able to get Kent down, but he later died at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, where he had been flown by helicopter.
Then, on March 7, Sistersville resident Dustin Fulks, 24, died after corrections officers found him in his cell at the jail and were unable to revive him. A jail representative said the medical examiner concluded that death was also a suicide. Fulks had been arrested a week earlier on a charge of operating or attempting to operate a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory.
Suicide by inmates has long been a problem for corrections officials. It had become such an issue that during the 1980s, many states began training corrections officers to detect potential suicide victims. This training, along with many jails now providing mental health services, has been so effective that the number of suicides has dropped from approximately 35 per 100,000 inmates in 1981 to fewer than 10 per 100,000 in 2011.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, which has written a training program for correction officers, the jail environment is conducive to suicide because it diminishes a person’s control of his or her life, and removes inmates from their social support networks. Inmates can easily become despondent thinking about the choices they have made that resulted in them being incarcerated. This is especially true for younger inmates, who are some of the most likely to attempt suicide while in jail. Another high risk factor is drug involvement. While we do not know of Kent’s background, Fulks’ arrest was for drugs.
Officers might not be held responsible for an inmate’s decision to end his or her life. However, after Kent’s suicide on Feb. 24, officers at the facility should not only have been reminded to fall back on the training they have received, but perhaps given more instruction in suicide prevention. At the very least, these deaths warrant scrutiny from officials at the state level.