“I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued”: About East Mississippi’s Suicide Prevention Program

“I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued,” says Virgil Lee Tate, a resident at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, MS.

Since becoming a volunteer in a new program at the facility – which utilizes resident volunteers to help a fellow resident on suicide watch – Virgil’s perspective on his incarceration experience has changed.

“I was put here not to do time,” he says. “I was put here to help guys and show my experience, strength, and hope.”

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Virgil Lee Tate, resident.

The initiative is called the “Companion Suicide Prevention Watch”. Resident volunteers, who are carefully chosen, provide critical intervention when staff identify a man as a suicide risk.

“Well, they have to go through a rigorous interview,” explains Warden Donald Jackson. “Then they have to go through some training. So, we don’t just throw them out there and say, ‘Hey, you’re a companion, we want you to watch this inmate.’ No, they go through a whole lot of training. We monitor them, we watch them to see how they interact with inmates.”

Lonnie Lee is also a Companion Suicide Prevention Watch volunteer.

“Sometimes we sit 12-16 hours a night with guys,” he states. “Just a couple of weeks ago, we had eight men on watch. And I still got up, [went] to school, and [did] my work. It’s a blessing. That’s why I think God has put me here: to help somebody else.”

The Companion Suicide Prevention Watch is not intended to replace staff or their expertise. But it is meant to provide support when staff determine a fellow resident could make a difference.

“With the inmate there, it’s totally different,” Warden Jackson relates. “He says, ‘Hey, we’re the same and I’m watching you, my brother. I have your back’. And that’s a big change with the inmate companionship.”

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East Mississippi residents.

“And that makes me feel like I’m really helping somebody,” says Virgil. “That’s my key.”

“There are a lot of guys that’s needing people to be there for them,” Lonnie adds. “And that’s what I try to do. It helps them, and it also helps me as well.”