DARTMOUTH — The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office will rebuild hundreds of metal-frame bunk beds to make them more suicide-resistant, one immediate response to an expert’s report finding the department has the “foundation of a good suicide prevention program,” while noting some poor practices, certain cells that are “very dangerous” and a suicide rate since 2017 that is more than three times the national average. 

Sheriff Paul Heroux, now just over three months into his administration, said he believed that a number of the suicides of people in custody could have been prevented if steps had been taken as outlined in the report by Lindsay M. Hayes, a nationally-recognized authority on suicides of prison and jail inmates. Heroux, a former mayor of Attleboro who campaigned for the job in part by criticizing longtime Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s record on inmate suicides, hired Hayes to produce the report weeks after taking office. 


Among other findings in the 64-page report submitted last week, Hayes noted that of seven suicides at the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth since 2017, all seven inmates used the metal bunk beds, specifically, the “metal railings or ventilation holes as an anchoring point in their suicides by hanging.”  

Hayes wrote that since 2017, 10 Bristol County inmates have committed suicide, three at Ash Street, seven at North Dartmouth. That’s a rate of 165 deaths per 100,000, as compared with the national average in 2019 of 49 per 100,000, Hayes wrote. Sheriff’s department records show that since 2006, 23 people have committed suicide while in Bristol County custody, more than in any other Massachusetts county. 

Hayes’ report spells out 24 recommendations to improve suicide prevention, including more privacy during inmates’ first screening as they come into the House of Correction; getting nurses involved in screening people who have been locked up at Ash Street before they’ve been to court; revising screening questions to better reveal suicidal intentions; and more staff suicide prevention training. 

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Heroux unveiled the report in a news conference Thursday in North Dartmouth looking at his first 100 days in office in which he also presented a third, revised approach to closing the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford. 

The new tack — expected to require less time and money — involves modifying existing sections of the Jail and HOC and the Women’s Center to provide locking doors and toilets in rooms that do not have them. Heroux said it will take about two years and cost about $1.5 million — money the department already has on hand in a fund built on inmate spending at the canteen.

Earlier, Heroux had proposed replacing the 100 or so single cells needed at Ash Street by reconstructing the former immigration detention center on the North Dartmouth campus, or by building cells in the gym at the House of Correction. He had estimated the former would cost $10 million, the latter about $6 to $8 million.  

Heroux also presented a new organizational chart for his agency, including a new position of director of inmate services, and positions that will allow administrators to concentrate on helping inmates who have completed their sentences establish the fundamental elements of a life back in the community: housing, health care and a job. 

It’s all part of Heroux’s effort to fulfill his campaign pledge to run what he called a “modern” exemplary correctional system. He said he had asked the state Legislature for a $68 million budget, up from about $57 million, including 20 new positions. 

Ash Street Jail. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

“I have visions of correctional systems around the country looking at our data, looking at our programs, looking at our policies and outcomes and modeling their operations after ours,” Heroux said in a statement presented on Thursday. 

Some policies and procedures relating to suicide prevention need work, Hayes wrote, as he followed the approach he has taken in reports written elsewhere by breaking down a suicide prevention program into what he defines as the eight essential elements: staff training, intake screening/assessment, communication among staff, housing, levels of supervision/management, intervention in a suicide attempt, reporting suicide and suicide attempts within the institution and inmates’ family, follow-up/mortality review.

Hayes had no recommendations on communication, intervention and reporting. He reserved his strongest wording in discussing screening at the Ash Street Jail and cells. 

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He called the situation “very precarious” for so-called “regional lockups” at the Ash Street Jail — meaning people arrested and brought to the jail from anywhere in Bristol County and perhaps outside before their court appearances — because there are no mental health services for these detainees. He recommended that nurses either review screening forms, or conduct the screenings, and mental health clinicians should assess those detainees placed on mental health watch.

Other than cells in the Health Services Unit at the House of Correction, he noted others in North Dartmouth and New Bedford that were “very dangerous” for features that would allow an inmate to hang themselves. He noted the bunk beds, clothing hooks and window bars.

He recommended modifying bunk beds, covering window bars with clear plastic sheets, installing ventilation grates with smaller holes and covering exposed pipes. 

Heroux said he and several staff members fashioned a suicide-resistant bed frame prototype that — with perhaps some modifications to come — will become the department standard. He said about 1,000 of these would be made in-house by staff members and inmates. 

Out in a yard at North Dartmouth on Thursday, Heroux showed an existing bunk bed with a ladder, a hole in the base supporting the mattress and vertical metal pieces. An inmate could easily tie a sheet to any of these elements, Heroux said. 

The prototype eliminates the projecting metal pieces, the ladder and the ventilation hole in the mattress support. 

“Is this a suicide-proof bed? No, there’s no such thing,” Heroux said. But the modified frame will make suicide more difficult.

Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at ahirsch@newbedfordlight.org.

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