Pat Nolan Stops Offender Suicide Attempt

Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 3:40pm

When the Code Four for a disturbance on Red Unit went out over the radio, Corrections Captain George “Pat” Nolan rushed into chaos.

The offenders were screaming and banging on their cell doors. The noise was deafening.

At first, he didn’t see the problem. He was told to look up. Only then did he notice the offender standing on a narrow beam on the upper level of the housing unit. A rope made of T-shirts was tied around a ceiling pipe and his neck. He was precariously rocking back and forth.

“Some inmates were yelling for him to jump, egging him on. He’s yelling back at them,” Nolan recalled. “Others were hollering for him not to jump. Staff was hollering for him not to jump.”

Yeah, chaos.

He wasn’t carrying a weapon, but he was armed with something more important that day last year at Tabor Correctional Institution – training.

For the next tense 2 1/2 hours, Nolan adapted his training as a 10-year member of the state prisons hostage negotiating team into an on-the-fly suicide prevention effort. He was the lead negotiator, and his team worked to support him.

“I think he went in and automatically immersed himself in the training and the instincts kicked in,’’ said Sarah Cobb, an assistant director of prisons who has served on the hostage negotiating team since its inception in 1998. “Staff does an excellent job preventing things like this from escalating to this point. He was the lead, but they work as a team. This was an extraordinary day.”

Nolan knew he had to control the scene, deescalate the tension, listen closely, project empathy, build rapport, gain trust, offer minor incentives if necessary and talk the offender down.

He dispatched several correctional officers to stop the other 47 offenders from banging on their cell doors and screaming.

He eased closer to the offender (let’s call him John Jones to protect his confidentiality) and gave his unwavering attention for hours.

“I talked about sports. I talked about fishing. I was looking for anything to build rapport. At first, he didn’t want to talk to me. But I knew he wasn’t playing.”

Why today? Nolan asked.

My mother and I argued, and she said she wouldn’t have anything to do with me anymore, Nolan recalled Jones’ answer.

She’s your momma; she’ll always be your momma. Surely this isn’t your first argument with her. What else, Nolan asked.

I received a disciplinary action earlier, and I may get moved away from my friends and maybe to a higher custody level, Jones replied.

What else? Nolan pressed.

I don’t have anything to live for anymore, Jones told him.

Nolan was trained to know that wording was a warning sign. There were other signs over the ensuing hours. Jones wanted to pray. He wanted to talk to his friends on the pod one last time. He wanted one of his friends to call his mother later and tell him he was sorry for killing himself.

“I knew when he asked to see a chaplain he was fixing to jump,” Nolan said.

Nolan turned those requests to his advantage as incentives. If you come down, Nolan said, you can pray all you want. Come down, you can see a chaplain. Come down, you can talk to your friends away from the other offenders. Come down, and you can have that glass of water you requested.

“You have my word as a man and as a captain you can talk to them all you want,’’ Nolan assured. “I just kept talking to him. That is what I was taught. I promised not to touch him. I kept bringing the water closer.”

At one point, another captain handed Nolan a cutting tool to use in case Jones jumped. That way Nolan would have a chance to cut the T-shirt noose from Jones’ neck and perhaps prevent his death. Nolan slid it into his back pocket.

Nolan later discovered other officers had prepared for failure as well and, outside of his field of vision, stacked mattresses and carts beneath Jones to hopefully break his fall sufficiently to save his life if he jumped.

Ultimately, two others on the team with Nolan – nursing supervisor Cherletta Scott and a unit manager – held Jones’ hand and they prayed together. With that, Jones surrendered, and the ordeal ended.

“That may be the first time I ever held an offender’s hand,” Scott said. “That day completely stands out. We never had anything like that before. This was evidence of team work, support and dedication not only to our department, but to the population we service.”

With slow movements, Nolan handcuffed Jones, took him to the medical staff to have him checked out and then to meet with his offender friends, appropriately supervised, as promised.

“While I was escorting him, some inmates clapped,” recalled Nolan, who now is assistant superintendent for custody at Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution.

“I really believe what we did that day saved that boy’s life. We all went home that day feeling good.”

While dramatic suicide interventions are rare, staff in state prisons – both in medical and in custody – work hard every day to help offenders dealing with mental health issues. More than 18 percent of the almost-36,000 offenders in the state prison system receive mental health treatment, said Dr. Gary Junker, director of behavioral health.

In fact, more than 2,800 suicide risk assessments were done last year by licensed behavioral health staff and, as a result, approximately 2,000 offenders were placed on around-the-clock suicide watches. The staff cares.

“It is men and women like Pat Nolan and everyone on that team who make me proud to be a correctional professional,” said Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter. “They do good things day in and day out. Little things, big things. It’s what they do. They work to keep order, and protect the staff, the offenders and the public. They make a difference.” 

John Bull