By Christopher Zoukis
In Florida’s Volusia County, the local jail has an unusual, and in the opinion of some observers, ill-advised program for monitoring inmates thought to be at risk of suicide or going through drug detoxification. Its inmate observation program (informally known as the “INOB”) assigns other inmates to the duty of monitoring those at-risk inmates, who are placed in designated holding cells. The inmates under observation wear only a smock, which some opt to shed, and also receive a stiff blanket, which they can use as other covering.
The director of the Volusia County jail in Daytona Beach enthuses about INOB program, which began last November. Supporters claim it stems from a program used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and has been emulated in other prisons. But there are obvious differences between BOP’s use of inmates to monitor other inmates and the Volusia County program. For one thing, the BOP program uses volunteers, and requires they be, as described by an agency spokesperson, “mature, reliable individuals” who have earned “credibility with both staff and inmates.” The county program, on the other hand, assigns inmates to INOB duty, whether or not they are willing to perform it.
Further, BOP recommends volunteer inmates should generally serve only four-hour shifts, while the county runs eight-hour shifts. BOP also mandates a minimum of four hours of initial training for volunteer participants, and semi-annual four-hour refresher sessions. Asked about the length of training for the county’s program, a county spokesperson told a local newspaper only that “it varies,” and several Volusia inmates on INOB duty reported receiving no training. Research on the BOP program was done at a federal medical center, and researchers cautioned their findings on the program’s benefits (reducing time at-risk inmates stayed on suicide watch, and by helping rehabilitate volunteer monitors by allowing them to contribute their service) should not be applied to settings other than medical centers.
Suicide prevention has been a continuing challenge for state and local jails, where Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics reveal suicide has the leading cause of death every year since 2000. But the Volusia jail has a particularly high rate, according to a May 2017 report by a consultant it hired. The report said the Volusia jail’s 11 suicides since 2013, including two within a 4-day stretch this January, produced a rate of 93.4 suicides for every 100,000 inmates, which “greatly exceeds” that for county jails nationwide. The most recent DOJ report found the suicide rate nationwide for state and local jails ranged from 35 per 100,000 inmates in 2009 to 45 per 100,000 in 2014.
Experts in the field have criticized the Volusia County program, particularly its use of non-volunteers. One 20-year-old inmate assigned to INOB duty asked to be transferred, saying he found it distasteful have to watch often-nude inmates for extended periods of time. His request was denied, and when he refused to perform, he was put in disciplinary confinement. The inmate told a local newspaper he was not refusing all work assignments, just INOB duty. One Florida consultant, a former warden in the state, expressed disbelief at the Volusia jail’s program, which he attributed to a desire to cut costs, and cautioned a single lawsuit over the practice “could sink the jail.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.