A report published recently by the U.S Department of Justice revealed that people incarcerated in state prisons died by suicide at a rate of 20 per 100,000 in 2014…an increase of 30 percent from the previous year.
Just like many of us in the general population, adults in custody have families, things they care about, and live in stressful and difficult environments. Many are the survivors of suicide loss, or have faced suicidal thoughts themselves.
On Saturday May 27th, Oregon held the first ever Out of the Darkness Walk in the country to take place inside a state prison, at Santaim Correctional Institution. Made possible by the Oregon Department of Corrections, the event was held in conjunction with the Salem Out of the Darkness Walk, and was preceded a day before by a Talk Saves Lives education presentation attended by 97 inmates: almost 25 percent of the entire inmate population.
The adults in custody, as well as prison staff, together raised a combined $3,163 dollars for suicide prevention. One amazing individual who worked tirelessly to lead the walk is George Skurtu, an inmate who was released from custody just a few short weeks after the walk.
This is his story:
“In January of 2010, at the age of 22, I was arrested. Six months later, I was sentenced to 90 months in prison in the state of Oregon.
During my incarceration, I decided prison wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave behind. I utilized my time by studying, networking, and reflecting on what my true self really is. At one point, I ran across a quote often attributed to either William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
I decided I had to figure out how I wanted to give back. Looking back at my life, I realized how much suicide had affected my life.
In 1990, when I was two years old and my sister was seven, my father, Ronald Skurtu, died by suicide. Growing up, I was oblivious to how my father died. I just knew it was a sore subject for my family. One day, when I was about 16, my older sister randomly said, “I think you are old enough to know now. Dad didn’t die in a car accident. He died by suicide.” My sister, still traumatized by this, found it too difficult to say more out loud. Instead, she wrote out the story of our father in the form of letters. She made me promise not to tell our mother she had told me the truth.
Finding out what really happened to my father left me confused, but it never occurred to me to seek out counsel or support. For years, I felt lied to and betrayed by my own family. I carried around the weight of these feelings and did not talk about them. In my view, this translated into negative actions that eventually led me to serving seven and a half years in prison.
I realized that my purpose was to help with suicide prevention efforts and provide support to those left behind by suicide. During my incarceration, I was fortunate to have been a part of a groundbreaking program called Business in a Box, whose mission was to lower recidivism by providing entrepreneurial education and experience. I was told about AFSP’s community walks by a staff member named Shea May, and I decided I wanted to donate proceeds from my business to the cause. Watching an Out of the Darkness Walks video online and realizing how many people are affected by suicide, I broke down and cried in my supervisor Daniel Bielenberg’s office. Asked what was wrong, I replied, “I’m just passionate about connecting myself and my businesses to this cause. When I get out, I want to be a part of it.”
“Why wait until you get out? Why not do it here?” Dan replied.
I wrote a proposal, presented it to management of the facility, and organized the event. It was the very first Out of the Darkness Walk in the country to be held inside of a prison.
I understand the importance of utilizing the gifts I have acquired to help others and impact my environment in a positive way. I have found great purpose and fulfillment in helping others who have been affected by mood disorders, depression, incarceration, and suicide, just as I have been affected. This is the gift I am giving back.”
A video about the event can be viewed here.
Though George is now a free man, many other volunteers inside the prison are excited about planning an Out of the Darkness Walk next year, and have the support of the facility superintendent who attended the walk on Saturday.
I am currently working on a guidebook for planning an event like this inside a prison. The staff at SCI will also share it with other facilities in Oregon, and I encourage any AFSP chapters who are interested to email me.
This was an inspiring event that truly represented a coming out of the darkness for those who need it.
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