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Bridgie Hansen is the juvenile administrator in charge of training correctional officers at the Grand Forks Juvenile Detention Center and the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

'Light in a dark place': With expanded training, jail officers prevent suicide

GRAND FORKS—When an inmate attempted suicide earlier this year at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, staff responded within seconds, Jail Administrator Bret Burkholder said.

Training on how to respond and the quick reaction saved the inmate's life, Burkholder said, adding staff members focus on methods that help spot early signs of suicide, while the jail tries to offer services to reduce depression.

"When I think of all of the different instances we've had here, and the ability for our staff to respond quickly and efficiently to assist people, it is very good," he said.

The jail hasn't had a suicide since it opened in September 2006, though it hasn't been without attempts. The jail has responded to 24 attempts since 2013, according to an open records request.

The Grand Forks County Juvenile Detention Center also has prevented or saved all who have attempted suicide at the downtown facility since it opened in 1979, said Bridgie Hansen, the juvenile administrator in charge of training correctional officers at both centers. The goal is to keep inmates safe while they serve their time, Burkholder said.

But suicide prevention includes giving inmates hope in a dark place, Hansen said.

"The most important aspect of suicide prevention is treating others the way you want to be treated," she said. "If you are disrespectful, you can't expect an inmate to be respectful back to you.

"You have to be a light in a dark place," she said.

Quick response

When officers are hired, each one goes through a two-hour block of training on suicide prevention, including noticing signs and behaviors, as well as how to respond to attempts.

Hansen became a facility trainer in 1985 before she was appointed the juvenile center's head officer in 1991. She took the lead on gathering information and forming training material for officers. Her goal was to bring in training that was more than just a simple program.

She included stats, prevention methods, questionnaires and presentations on as much information she could give officers.

"It's part of your job to save lives," Hansen said, adding she wanted to create a training program after seeing a number of suicide attempts. "I always said, 'If I run this facility, I want to make sure they are treated like I treat my kids.'"

The last suicide by an inmate happened in August 2006, before the correctional center moved from its downtown location to the northside facility, which was opened and occupied in September 2006, according to Herald archives.

The incident led to an inspection of the old facility. Former Jail Administrator Gary Gardner was fired after the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation threatened to shut the jail down amid allegations the facility failed to correct state code violations. Gardner also faced criticism when commissioners said he misled them on financial issues related to the current facility, according to Herald archives.

Burkholder was hired to replace Gardner.

Jail staff check on inmates at least once an hour, though they check on inmates who show signs of suicide more often, Burkholder said. Officers can respond to incidents—from suicide attempts to fights—within a minute, he said.

"By DOCR standard, we have a four-minute timeframe," he said of suicide attempt response time.

There were eight attempted suicides last year, and the only one this year was in February. Jail staff responded to the inmate within 35 seconds, and medical staff were at the scene in less than a minute, Burkholder said.

He attributed quick response and officer training to saving the inmate's life.

The juvenile center has also made improvements over the years to prevent suicides, such as installing easy-to-break shower rails and getting rid of as many objects that could be used to hang oneself as they could. The facility also offers reading material, games and activities to keep young people busy.

One goal is to find out if inmates may be suicidal, watch them closely and get them the help they need, Burkholder said. But the jail also tries to provide inmates with deterrents. Burkholder mentioned the jail's texting program allows inmates to stay in contact with family so they don't feel as isolated, especially during holidays.

"You never know when a suicide attempt is going to occur," he said. "If we knew about them, they wouldn't occur on the outside. They wouldn't occur on the inside."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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