Peer-based suicide prevention responds to prisoners in crisis
On February 17, 2005, Rob-ert Dubner had breakfast in the chow hall with fellow inmates, then returned to his cell, and hanged himself.
Dubner’s good friend Marvin Mutch was devastated. He was also perplexed because his friend was popular and respected in the prison community. He loved playing music in a band and was generally sociable. “It’s that helplessness and hopelessness of prison,” said Mutch.
As a way to remember his friend and redirect his grief, Mutch founded Brothers’ Keepers: an organization that allows incarcerated people in crisis to seek support from their peers.
Before the formation of Brothers’ Keepers, only prison staff was allowed to respond to those having thoughts of suicide. However, inmates in crisis often avoid communicating to staff because they fear CDCR’s suicide protocols. Some worry that thoughts of suicide might harm their chances of being found suitable for release in front of the Parole Board. Mutch believed an inmate-to-inmate support model would be crucial for providing incarcerated people with the support they needed.
Mutch and the executive director of the Insight Prison Project, Jacques Verduin, lobbied then-Warden Robert Ayers for support and got the green light to actualize their vision. Along with Marcia Blackstock and Diane Beynon of Bay Area Women Against Rape, as well as the Family Violence Law Center in Oak-land and Suicide Prevention and Community Counseling of Marin, they built a program that allowed incarcerated residents of San Quentin to become first responders for inmates in crisis.
Their mission statement read: “…The purpose of the Peer Responders is to establish an atmosphere of trust and confidence within the population. Brothers’ Keepers will strive to meet the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of inmates in crisis, and act as a source of information regarding available mental health, spiritual, and/or medical services.”
During COVID outbreaks and quarantines, San Quentin’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Dr. E. Anderson, and clinical social worker Ms. K. O’Neil, worked in tandem with Brothers’ Keepers to coordinate crisis intervention. After the ups and downs of the pandemic reduced the Peer Responders group to four members, Dr. Ander-son believed it was time to absorb Brothers’ Keepers into CDCR’s portfolio.
Dr. Anderson and his team will change the name of the group to Keepers, or possibly Keepers of San Quentin, to make it more gender-inclusive. The goal is for the prison administration to enhance the program and collaborate with mental health and custody partners to provide additional support to the population, especially for those who are unwilling to or uninterested in speaking with mental health staff.
“I hope the experienced members and new members we selected know how honored Ms. O’Neil and I are to join their team. We believe they share a vision that saves lives through this program,” said Dr. Anderson.
Prison staff will provide training in crisis and suicide prevention, and provide Keep-ers’ members with an overview of the mental health services that are available within CDCR. The goal is for this information to help the population understand mental health challenges, and de-stigmatize them for those who need support. Dr. Anderson and his staff would like the population to see mental health support as a resource that can be utilized at any time if needed.
“Collaborating with Mental Health and Custody on issues of preserving life is a massive step in the right direction,” said new member Henok Rufael. “We’re grateful for being selected because this program builds bridges between staff, Mental Health, and the incarcerated.”
Keepers’ members are available 24/7 to any officer or incarcerated person. Members of the group previously wore black wristbands so staff and residents could identify them in times of need. Now, members of the Peer Response Team wear a starfish lapel pin.
“Whether it’s Brothers’ Keepers, Keepers, or Keepers of San Quentin, it’s an honor to carry out Mutch’s vision,” said returning member Rob Tyler. “Members of Keepers are respected residents of our community who maintain leadership positions throughout the prison. Participants also demonstrate emotional intelligence, empathy and caring, and are willing to work with anyone in need. We will be there for our incarcerated family.”
“Mutch wanted to save every life by having guys in blue be the first responders of someone in crisis. This will not change,” added K. O’Neil.
Anyone needing assistance for any reason can reach out to the crisis/suicide inmate team at San Quentin.