Prison Peers Fight Against Suicide Trenton Convicts On Front Lines Of Prevention

Posted: May 06, 1990

TRENTON — Prison inmate Robert Pukel had a friend who took a coffee-can lid and opened his throat from ear to ear.

That was in the early 1980s, a time when Pukel thought that if another inmate wanted to kill himself, he "would have probably given him the can."

Not anymore.

Pukel, serving 30 years for murder, is among a small number of Trenton State Prison inmates who have been trained to keep other inmates from killing themselves.

It's a prevention program that's unique in New Jersey and one of only a few nationwide, one that relies on inmates, not guards, to identify and help prisoners who may be contemplating suicide.

The inmates essentially become the eyes and ears of the psychological staff, the first to spot a despondent prisoner, to gain the trust of convicts who would scoff at seeking help from corrections officers. They provide on- the-spot counseling and refer serious cases to the professionals.

"You could consider us time merchants," said inmate Raymond Cieslak, who helped start the program. "We buy time."

It's no accident that the program began at Trenton State, generally considered New Jersey's toughest prison. It's the state's only full maximum- security institution, holding 2,200 of the most difficult inmates. They're inmates who have misbehaved at other prisons or who are serving heavy time.

Sentences of 60, 70 or even 100 years - what can amount to a death sentence - are not uncommon at Trenton State Prison. Many of the stout, muscled young men now roaming the cellblocks will be bent and gray before they get out. Others will leave only for their funerals.

"You have no real incentive," said an inmate in the program, David Lambert, serving a life sentence for murder. "You're going to be here a long time."

That knowledge, inmates said in interviews, can rob prisoners of all hope and purpose, pushing them toward self-destruction. Other factors also contribute.

When an inmate first enters prison, outside friends visit loyally and wives promise to wait forever. But after five or 10 years, friends and family fade away, and an inmate finds himself alone, prisoners said. More than one man has killed himself after learning that his wife left him, they said.

Some inmates are wracked by guilt, not only over their crimes, but because they've hurt their families. They see elderly, sickly parents forgoing medicine to buy them food and clothes.

"That guilt feeling is like a thumping heart. Like Poe's heart, it's thumping on you," Pukel said, referring to the heartbeat that is the embodiment of terror in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart."

Living conditions at Trenton State, whose oldest sections were built more than 150 years ago in the 1830s, add to the tension. Towering stone walls enclose dank cells. Movement at the prison, which houses New Jersey's death row, is tightly controlled. Hallways between the upper and lower tiers are topped by a heavy chain-link net in case an inmate pushes a guard over the railing.

Inmates say they're fighting an us-versus-them battle with the guards, ''the brotherhood of the blue shirts," the very people that most other suicide-prevention programs rely on to pick up warning signals.

"They don't give up information to the guards, even if it involves someone being suicidal," said the prison's director of psychology, David Parrish, who helped develop the program. "That also translates into, 'We're going to take care of one another. I don't want the system to claim you.' "

A troubled prisoner can talk to an inmate-counselor without worrying that the information may wind up on his record, hurting his chances for parole.

The most recent suicide at the prison occurred about eight or nine months ago, before the prevention project was started, Parrish said. On average, the prison has two suicides and 60 attempts a year, Parrish said.

"We have guys whose arms, there's nothing left to cut. It's all scar tissue from all the attempts," he said.

Inmates who volunteer for suicide-prevention training undergo a 15-hour course in which they learn basic counseling skills, perform role-playing and are taught to recognize suicidal behavior. The signs can be as obvious as refusing to accept visits and as subtle as a new interest in religious ideals of forgiveness.

The first class of 11 inmates completed the course at the end of March. Another group followed, and within a few weeks, prison officials expect to have two trained inmates on every housing unit.

When the trainees encounter an inmate who may be suicidal - they say they've had two cases so far - the goal is to buy time. They tell the inmate they're worried about him and want to talk. They offer a cigarette. They try to be caring and sincere.

"You would think, what difference does it make?" said Cieslak, serving 18 years for armed robbery. "But it gave us a sense of self-worth. . . . It gave us all a different insight into what life is about."

And as Pukel frankly admits, there were selfish reasons for getting involved.

When an inmate kills himself, the administration clamps down, he said. Security gets tougher, inmates may be confined to their cells and privileges may be restricted.

"We don't want anybody to disturb whatever comfortability we have," he said.

Parrish, who has worked at the prison 18 years, hopes to see the program spread to other New Jersey prisons, and possibly become a model for institutions around the country.

He concedes the results are intangible, since it's impossible to know when an inmate who was quietly considering suicide has decided to live. But it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. And it helps people, Parrish said.

"We didn't foresee the possibility that inmates would talk to other inmates about feelings," he said. "It gives us a channel that's unique."

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