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19 Feb, 2010 06:30

“Guardian angels” saving inmates from suicide

In prison, people are five times more likely to kill themselves than anywhere else – but a correction facility in Northern Spain seems to have found an effective way of supporting troubled inmates.

The 21st century prison in Northern Spain may look to some more like a state-funded recreation centre; for the inmates it's anything but.

A third of them are drug addicts and many have psychological problems. Some are serving multiple life terms.

“I took too many pills, and then I started to think about killing myself,” inmate Alberto Garcia Aria recalls. “I used to run a construction company. Then I got into drugs and lost all I had.”

“I have HIV. I haven't been able to work for many years. You are on your own. It eats at you. People hang themselves – it's the simplest way of doing it,” inmate Jesus Dominguez Fernandez says.

Prison officials at the facility in Northern Spain are leading the fight against prison suicides – and the prisoners themselves are helping them.

Nicknamed “Guardian Angels”, these settled and stable inmates are specially chosen and paired with those seen as most vulnerable.

They sleep in the same cells, eat at the same table, and share prison activities and duties with the more fragile prisoners.

“The suicidal convicts are usually very withdrawn. Finding out what bothers them is like pulling teeth. But, when we are close to them, they begin to tell us their problems, and we can pass them onto the psychologists. Next to us, they are safe,” Juan Macial Martínez, a Guardian Angel, says.

Alberto Garcia Aria is in jail for brandishing a weapon.

“I imagined prison would be full of aggression. But my Guardian Angel helped me, explained how things worked. With him I began to read. Now, I read all the time. If not for my Guardian Angel I might have been dead,” he says.

Psychologists also try to keep prisoners occupied for as many hours as possible. They try to give inmates more responsibilities to prepare them better for life outside prison walls.

“Before here, I tried to kill myself three or four times. But here, I haven't,” Jesus Dominguez Fernandez says.

The gentle and caring approach appears to be paying off – in four years in this prison, which can hold 1,700 inmates, there has not been a single suicide.

The measures used in this and other prisons around Spain have halved the suicide rate in just five years. They are now being trialed in other countries, and may soon be adopted throughout Europe.