- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - La Crosse County officials are considering structural changes at the county’s juvenile prison after a spike in suicide attempts.

Thirteen juveniles have attempted suicide this year at the center, nearly twice as many as in all of 2016, the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/2pCrAcj) reported.

“Absolutely, it’s very concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, manager of the county’s Justice Support Services agency that oversees the facility. “It speaks to the needs of the kids we’re working with.”

The head of the county’s Health and Human Services Department has asked its board for five more staff members for the facility’s secure unit at a cost of nearly $129,800 for the rest of the year.

Human Services Director Jason Witt said the request for more staff is a response to the average daily population, a rising demand for the facility’s court-ordered treatment program and the increase in reports of self-harm.

“We want more staff to build better relationships with kids,” said David Steinberg, the facility’s superintendent. “And this will enhance that greatly.”

Facility supervisors also are looking at replacing doors and bunk beds to prevent hangings. All but one of the suicide attempts this year involved hangings from cell door bars or bunk beds.

Staff members at the La Crosse facility say they check on juveniles about every 13 minutes. The state requires the children be checked on every half hour.

Steinberg said supervisors first noticed the spike in December, when there were three attempts in one week.

Records show there was one attempted suicide in 2012 and three each in 2013 and 2014. There were two attempts in 2015 and seven in 2016. All juveniles who attempted suicide were being housed in the facility’s secure section.

Officials say it’s difficult to attribute the increase in suicide attempts to one cause, but that they’re witnessing an increase in juveniles suffering from complex mental health problems and traumatic childhoods, including abuse and neglect, and exposure to substance abuse and domestic violence.

“I wish there was an easy answer,” Bisek said.

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Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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