Amidst the ear-splitting sound of grinding metal, plumes of orange sparks fly around three inmates armed with blowtorches and sanders in the vocational shop at Hampden County Jail. It doesn’t look like it at first, but the point of all this welding is to prevent inmate suicides.

As part of a jail-wide effort to reduce suicides, inmate welders retrofit steel beds to fill-in holes that could be used for tying down a makeshift noose.
Chris Burrell/NECIR

Inmate-welders under the watchful eye of teacher Angel Strada are retrofitting 2,000 steel bed frames, filling in golf-ball sized holes that could be used for tying down a make-shift noose.

“A lot is involved in making those beds,” said Strada.

Refitting old beds is just part of the anti-suicide effort in Hampden County.  The jail is also putting up posters and distributing pamphlets to new inmates. They want inmates to keep their ears open, and to take seriously any mention of suicide and report it to officers.

Hampden County’s efforts to reduce suicide among inmates come as many counties across the state are witnessing an increase in suicides. Since 2006, at least 65 inmates have killed themselves in county-run jails, more than double the number than in state prisons, even though both systems each house roughly 10,000 inmates.

Critics are calling for more state oversight of county sheriffs who run the jails and for more equity in how they’re funded by the state. Watchdogs like Prisoner Legal Services believe some lessons could be learned from the state prisons that have seen inmate suicides drop.

In Hampden County’s jail, three inmates have killed themselves in the last five years, which is half the number of inmate suicides in Essex, Suffolk and Worcester County jails for the same time period.

Donna Bernardi-Agnes, the clinical director in Hampden County, said jail officials created pamphlets to raise awareness after their investigation into a recent suicide revealed that the inmate had previously shared his suicidal thoughts with another inmate.

One of the warning signs highlighted in Hampden County’s pamphlet is hopelessness. The jail fights that problem with job training for inmates.

“As people are getting educated and trained, they feel more hopeful [that] maybe they can make a difference, and so that alone is decreasing a risk factor,” said Bernardi-Agnes.

Bill Champagne, a jail superintendent, said the training builds inmates’ confidence.

“It just changes the game and now they feel they can go out and do things they thought they couldn’t do,” he said.

Inmate Edwin Nuñez is learning how to sew green prison uniforms, mattresses and laundry bags and upholster furniture. He can knock out more than 60 shirts in a day. And he’s confident these new skills could lead to a job when he’s released.

“They teach us everything in there, step by step from the beginning to the end, everything.  If you don’t got experience, we learn in here,” he said.

Hampden is not the only county jail in Massachusetts to offer job training to inmates, but it is one of only two counties in the state that runs its own mental health program, instead of contracting with a for-profit provider. They have ten full-time mental health clinicians for about 1,400 inmates, more than triple the mental health staffing of other similar-sized county jails.

That’s where Hampden County’s sheriff wants to spend money. But many sheriffs have complained they’re overwhelmed with mentally ill inmates.

Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on jail suicides, said sheriffs need to face reality.

“Sheriffs need to stop complaining about being the largest mental health provider and start acting like it, by getting the resources they need and knocking on doors and publicizing it and working harder,” he said. “They’re operating on a funding cycle that is probably ten to 15 years old.”

County jails are funded with state taxpayer dollars. But county jail budgets in the state are a hodgepodge, according to a 2016 state analysis of sheriff’s funding. It costs one county $34,000 a year to house an inmate, while another county spends double that.

Critics like Prisoner Legal Services in Boston, which has filed numerous lawsuits against county jails and state prisons, say the county jails have too much latitude.

“There is no oversight in Massachusetts of the Department of Correction or the houses of correction. And the houses of the jails need it even more in many ways,” said Leslie Walker, director of the prisoner advocacy organization. “And the sheriffs, if they don’t feel like talking to us, they don’t have to. They report to the voters every six years.”

Walker would like to see a state agency hold sheriffs to one standard at the county jails – which is especially critical when it comes to mental health, she says.

“Why is it fair for someone with bipolar treated decently in prison in Hampden and not in Bristol?” she said. “Where you live shouldn’t determine the mental health care you receive.”

James Pingeon, also an attorney at Prisoner Legal Services, wants county jails to emulate state prisons, which have decreased suicides in recent years by building special housing for troubled inmates that allows more therapy and socializing.

But one other possible solution to inmate suicides doesn’t rely on therapy. It relies on technology.

Jail psychiatrist Jorge Veliz is trying to stop those inmates who never give any sign of being suicidal.

Veliz runs the for-profit health company Correctional Psychiatric Services, which has contracts with five county jails. He said his company is working on an invention that could allow jail workers to rescue an inmate right in the midst of a hanging.

The electronic device would be fitted on the ankle of a high-risk inmate, monitoring and transmitting heart rates, similarly to monitors in a hospital.

“The pulse rate initially goes sky high and then drops. That measure, at that moment is what we want to capture,” he said.  

That moment is critical. Experts say death by asphyxiation can happen in about seven minutes. Veliz believes he is still years away from perfecting his invention for the marketplace.

Until then, some state policymakers are beginning to grapple with the messy underpinnings of a county sheriff system that gets about $600 million a year in state funds, but has no checks and balances and no accountability to the legislature. 

The Eye is the online news site of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, based at WGBH Public Radio and Boston University. Jenifer McKim, Shaz Sajadi, Miranda Suarez, Debora Almeida, and Kaylie Piecuch contributed to this report. Chris Burrell can be reached at For more on this article, go to