First-in-the-nation suicide prevention walk held inside Salem prison

In this still image from video, inmates at the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem participate in the Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk. (Photo: Inside Video in cooperation with the Oregon Department of Corrections)

An Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk was recently held inside the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem. It's thought to be the first time in the country such a walk was held inside prison grounds.

"There was a lot of emotion to that day for a lot of different reasons," said Dan Bielenberg, an inmate work program coordinator with the facility.

Bielenberg says the idea was born out of a conversation with a former inmate, George Skurtu. The two men were discussing the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"He said, 'You know Mr. Bielenberg, when I get out I want to help this organization,'" recalled Bielenberg. "I turned to him and said, 'George, why would you wait?'"

That conversation eventually led to a group of inmates, under the direction of prison staff, organizing a fundraiser and walk inside prison grounds. It was an event aimed at prison staff as well as inmates.

"The suicide rate is much higher among correctional officers and police officers and it's also much higher among the incarcerated," said Bielenberg.

A group of inmates also shot and edited a video that highlighted the event.

"For a short period of time, these people were not incarcerated," said Bielenberg. "I think you can see if you look at their faces and how they're talking to the camera, they're just having a normal Saturday much like you or I would."

Besides addressing a serious problem like suicide, Bielenberg says the inmates' organization of the event helps accomplish a goal he always has his sights on.

"Everyone has a go-home date and when they go home, they're likely to be one of our neighbors," said Bielenberg. "I think it shows them that they are a person and that they can be successful and that they can make the community a better place."

In light of the walk's success, Bielenberg says other prisons across the country have asked Santiam Correctional Institution about organizing their own walks.

To learn more about suicide prevention, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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