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Suicides Plague Wisconsin Jails; Attempted Suicide Suit Settles for $13.1 Million

by Matthew T. Clarke

There has been a rash of suicides in Wisconsin jails, including six in 2005 and four in the first half of 2006. One jail, in LaCrosse County, experienced prisoner suicides in 1997, 2002, 2005 and 2006. La Crosse County Sheriff Mike Weissenberger blamed the problem on the depressing character of jail and the fact that jails have become mental health facilities, referring to the defunding of mental health centers during the Regan years that led to an influx of people into jails who should have been patients, not prisoners.

?I think there?s a mental health problem throughout out community, and, yes, there is a mental health problem in our jail,? said Weissenberger. ?They need to find places to put people that have mental health issues that don?t need to be in jail. I mean, there are people that need to be in jail that have mental health problems, and they need to find secure mental health facilities to deal with them.?

The nature of jail also exacerbates mental health problems. ?Jail is a depressing place. Just going into the facility, if you?ve never been there ... it?s depressing,? Weissenberger noted.

Even prisoners who arrive at a jail without mental health problems are likely to develop them due to anxiety and other stress factors they encounter while incarcerated, according to Steve Josephson, a clinical therapist at the LaCrosse County jail for 16 years. Adding to the problem is the lack of programming, understaffing and crowded conditions at the 23-cell jail (plus 7 medical cells). The county budgeted $36,700 for mental health services in 2006. This paid for Josephson to counsel prisoners four hours each weekday. He says he counseled about half of the prisoners, mostly with talk therapy. Ten prisoners at the jail also receive psychotropic medication for mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Scott Morris, a Wisconsin DOC detention facilities specialist, conducted an investigation into the latest LaCrosse jail suicides, including the deaths of Kirk Gunderson, 17, who hung himself on December 27, 2005, and Leonard Harvey, 25, who killed himself on April 5, 2006. Both were in the segregation unit and both used bed sheets to hang themselves from a metal box installed around the cell?s smoke detector.

?Looking at it now, it?s obviously a design flaw,? said Weissenberger.

Apparently Gunderson?s suicide didn?t make it obvious enough, as the problem remained unfixed for more than four months until Harvey?s death.
The smoke detectors in segregation have since been moved out-of-reach to the return air chase. The county intends to relocate all of the 75 smoke detectors in the jail?s general population at a cost of between $75,000 and $100,000. The jail also increased segregation cell supervision from every hour to every half-hour following Gunderson?s suicide. ?We do as much and as often as we can with the staff we have,? said Weissenberger, noting that understaffing was also an issue. Jail employees were cleared in connection with the Gunderson and Harvey suicides.

Tierra Hill, a 19-year-old prisoner held at the Dane County jail on misdemeanor charges, hung herself with a sheet on May 20, 2004; she stated in a note that she was depressed she was incarcerated again after previously serving time for felony arrests. Her mother filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 13, 2006 against the county and the jail?s medical contractor, Prison Health Services, claiming that Tierra did not receive adequate mental health treatment. The suit is still pending. See: The Estate of Tierra Hill v. Richards, USDC WD WI, Case No. 06-C-0732-C.

Meng-Ju ?Mark? Wu, 20, a Taiwanese national, was being held at Dane County?s maximum security lock-up in the City-County Building on homicide charges when he committed suicide on January 17, 2005. He hung himself from a sprinkler head; his body was found almost an hour later.

Christopher Brown, 38, killed himself at the Rock County jail on Dec. 16, 2005, just hours after returning from court. He hung himself using a bed sheet. ?Anytime someone dies in custody it?s a tragedy,? said jail commander Barbara Tillman, who noted there had been seven suicide attempts at the jail the year before. ?I think we are doing a really good job of screening inmates for these type of concerns related to self harm or suicide. However, it is disheartening for us. One suicide is too many.?

Unfortunately there have been far more than one more suicide at Wisconsin jails since Brown?s death.

Nathan Halter, 39, committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet in a shower in the maximum-security section of the Houston County Jail on March 16, 2006.

Russell Lee Murray, 41, hung himself with a sheet in a janitor?s closet at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility on June 1, 2006. The Detention Facility is run by the DOC but operates like a jail. Guards reportedly waited more than seven minutes to cut him down, and told another prisoner who tried to help by supporting Murray?s hanging body to let go and not intervene. According to that prisoner, LaMont Sholar, three nurses and six guards looked inside the closet before Murray was taken down. ?Everybody was going into the closet and looking at him like it was a peep show or something,? Sholar said. Two jail employees, including a lieutenant, were placed on paid administrative leave following the suicide, and the district attorney?s office ordered an inquest. An inquest jury ruled on January 10, 2007 that no criminal negligence had been committed by jail staff.

On July 10, 2006, Shane L. Hodge, 27, was discovered dead in the shower at the Waupaca County jail; he too had hung himself. His body was found by another prisoner.

Most recently, on March 28, 2007, Mose K. Black, 28, who was being held at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility on a probation revocation, hung himself using torn bed sheets tied around a light block on the wall of his cell. The facility had made improvements in mental health screening and staff suicide prevention training following Murray?s suicide the year before. ?We?ll have to see if there are any additional changes that need to be made,? said DOC spokesman John Dipko
In Monroe County, a federal lawsuit was filed over the attempted suicide of prisoner Brenda Mombourquette, 42. Mombourquette, a mother of two, hung herself with a sheet on November 22, 2002 despite her family?s repeated warnings to jail officials that she was suicidal. She previously had been taken to a hospital after slitting her wrists and an earlier attempted hanging. Upon her return, instead of being placed on suicide watch per a doctor?s orders she was instead returned to general population. Her last suicide attempt left her permanently brain damaged, wheelchair-bound and unable to communicate. She now resides in a nursing home under constant care. At the time of her attempted suicide in 2002, state inspectors had found the jail was ?poorly run? and ?poorly supervised.?

Monroe County settled the lawsuit, which also raised allegations that jail deputies had had sexual relations with female prisoners, in February 2007 for $13.1 million. Mombourquette was represented by attorney Michael Devanie, who said the settlement might be the largest for a jail suicide attempt nationwide. ?It doesn?t take a lot to prevent a suicide,? said Devanie. ?Over and over and over, you see it where the proper steps are taken [to prevent a suicide] ? people walk out of the jail and pass that bump in their life to correct their circumstances.
This did not have to happen.? Under the settlement Mombourquette or her estate will receive $6.1 million if she dies within the next 13 years, or a maximum payout of $13.1 million over her lifetime. See: Mombourquette v. Wisconsin Counties Mutual Insurance Co., USDC WD WI, Case No. 3:2005cv00748.

Before Kirk Gunderson killed himself, he left a coded message in toilet paper on the floor of his cell that expressed love for his family and stated, ?I am sorry.? When Leonard Harvey committed suicide, he wrote ?Just believe in me? on his cell window. One can only hope that the multi-million dollar settlement resulting from Brenda Mombourquette?s attempted suicide will send a clear message to Wisconsin sheriffs that they need to take the issue of jail suicides ? and precautions to prevent them ? more seriously.

Source: La Crosse Tribune, The Tomah Journal, Journal Sentinel

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Related legal case

Mombourquette v. Wisconsin Counties Mutual Insurance Co.