Brother's Keepers: A suicide support group for inmates

Jul 7, 2016

Deaths by suicide in prison are rare, but when they happen they create shockwaves. Inmates need support with handling trauma, and in 2005, Dennis Pratt co-founded Brother’s Keepers, a support group that works with inmates to prevent suicide and help each other through crises.

Dennis Pratt was sentenced to 15-years-to-life for a second-degree murder, and he’s been in prison for 34 years. He will never forget the morning a friend killed himself without warning.

“We didn't see no signs of suicide or anything like that, just all of a sudden he went to breakfast one morning, came back and hung himself with a sheet in his cell,” remembers Pratt. “And it was such a shock to the yard that a bunch of us got together and said 'We’ve got to do something about this.'”

Pratt and his friends started Brother’s Keepers, a support group for inmates to talk about their problems and their struggles with suicide. They meet once a week.

Pratt and other group leaders meet with inmates one-on-one to help them process the trauma they have experienced prior to coming to prison. Jimmy, a member of Brother's Keepers, shared his personal experience with suicide before coming to prison.

“That night, as I lay in bed next to my wife, I started to attempt to slice my wrists,” Jimmy remembers. “For some reason, God must have woke her up that night because she rolled over and said 'What are you doing, honey?' and I said, 'I am going to kill myself.'”

They also meet in groups to help individuals process trauma that they have experienced while inside prison, like the inmate who recently jumped to his death in West Block. Three inmates who met with Brother's Keepers members, who prefer to remain anonymous, share their version of what happened.

“I am one of the first ones back while they are still releasing the tier,” one inmate recalls. “That’s when I seen the shadow of him falling down.”

“And we heard a slap, a loud slap bang on the floor,” recalls another.

“And that is when I started seeing the blood coming out of him. To learn that he actually, as it was portrayed to me, taken his own life--I frankly could not believe it,” says the other.

The inmates who run Brother’s Keepers aren’t just good listeners. They are state-certified crisis counselors, thanks to training from Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR).

“BAWAR became involved and started teaching us how to spot people who are in a crisis situations or who may be depressed,” explains Dennis Pratt.

Marcia Blackstock is the Executive Director of BAWAR in Oakland, California.

“I actually started working in prisons in 1988, with Solano and the Victim Offender Reconciliation Group, and did on and off work with people in San Quentin,” says Blackstock. “In 2005, we were asked to come in and help start a crisis intervention training for some men who were requesting that, because of a suicide that happened here in the community.”

Pratt said some inmates prefer to talk to Brother’s Keepers rather than prison officials because what they tell the state can affect their cases.

“They are more open to listening to us because they know we're not writing anything down and it's not going in their file or anything like that,” says Pratt. “We explore options with them.  We help them come up with ideas, which empowers them.”

Pratt says there's no discrimination when it comes to the people that the Brother’s Keepers members counsel. They assist anyone and everyone.

“And we don't ask people what they're in for, because that doesn't make a difference to us. Okay? I could be talking to a sex offender and not even know it, because it doesn't matter.  Our main concern is, 'What are you going through?' and 'What do you need?'  Someone may have had a family member who passed away or get a denial at the Parole Board,” Pratt told me. 

To become a member of Brother’s Keepers, an inmate needs to commit to come to meetings every week, maintain confidentiality, and complete a training program.

“After the training, then you have a two-year commitment for practicing Brother's Keepers on the yard,” Pratt says.

Pratt explained how they spot inmates who need their help the most: “There are people who threaten to commit suicide, who do show signs and symptoms of being depressed and possible suicidality. And it's those individuals that we can look at and see and talk to and help them to see that there are people out there who care for them, that there are reasons to live, that there's nothing so terrible that we have to take our own life for.”

This story was reported by Louis A. Scott for the San Quentin Prison Report. It originally aired in January of 2015.