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Psych Evaluations Questioned Following D.C. Jail Suicides

by Matthew T. Clarke

The methods used for psychological evaluation and housing of prisoners at the Washington, D.C. Jail are being questioned after two prisoners committed suicide within a three-month period.

Alicia Edwards, 32, had a history of mental illness when she hung herself in her D.C. Jail cell on March 31, 2007. Jail officials initially released a false statement claiming she was housed in the facility?s mental health unit and was under observation every 15 minutes. This led The Washington Post and The Examiner to publish articles repeating the false information.

However, D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesperson Beverly Young later admitted that Edwards was neither in the mental health unit nor under increased observation, but rather was locked in a single-bunk intake unit cell isolated from other prisoners and was suffering from bipolar disorder when she killed herself.

The initial incorrect information was an apparent attempt to conceal the fact that, despite having a long history of mental illness and having been flagged for mental health problems during her intake screening, Edwards? required mental health evaluation had not been completed following her arrest two days prior to her death.

According to Vincent Keane, president of Unity Health Care, the jail?s contract health care provider, the intake screening did not indicate Edwards was a suicide risk and thus she was not placed on any kind of special observation or suicide watch. Unity received a three-year, $83 million contract to provide health care at the D.C. Jail in July 2006, despite having no prior experience in the field of prisoner medical care.

Edwards had been charged with two counts of shoplifting a total of $320 worth of personal hygiene items and clothes from a shopping mall, a contempt charge for disobeying a court order not to go to the mall, and two misdemeanor charges for missing court appearances. She had previously been sentenced to 60 days in jail for probation violation in January 2006; the judge in that case had issued a medical alert informing the jail of Edwards? bipolar disorder and diabetes. This information was apparently ignored by jail officials when Edwards was arrested in March 2007.

One point of similarity between Edwards? death and the death of Thomas Fitsum Alemayehu, 28, an Ethiopian cab driver who committed suicide at the D.C. Jail on December 23, 2006, is that they were both held in single-bunk cells with no special observation requirements. Both hung themselves a few days after being jailed.

Unlike Edwards, Alemayehu?s psychological evaluation was completed two days before he killed himself. The evaluation found nothing wrong with him, a finding that amazed people familiar with Alemayehu, who, they said, had obvious mental health problems. In fact, a plea bargain arranged by his court-appointed defense attorney, which likely would have resulted in his release from jail, fell apart due to Alemayehu?s incomprehensible statements and erratic behavior during the plea hearing the day before he hanged himself.

Alemayehu?s family has had a difficult time understanding why he would commit suicide, as he was only facing several minor traffic offenses. They found it even more difficult to believe that a trained psychologist could miss Alemayehu?s obvious mental health problems. His family described a young man who became increasingly mentally disturbed after his attempts to buy a house fell apart years earlier.

?If you see him, you know he?s sick. If you see him, he looks crazy,? said Alemayehu?s cousin, Wondwosan Temesgen. Nonetheless, a D.C.
Department of Mental Health psychologist gave Alemayehu a clean mental bill of health and noted no suicidal tendencies just two days before his death.

Both the DOC and the D.C. Inspector General?s Office are investigating the suicides, though it?s unlikely that the DOC will find that its employees or contractors did anything wrong. Keane certainly doesn?t feel that Unity did anything wrong, despite two dead bodies within a three-month period.

?I feel confident that even though a death has resulted, the procedures were followed, but we?ll always be looking for ways to improve,? said Keane.

So for Unity, everything is rosy. Procedures were followed and liability concerns are absolved ? if they are finally telling the truth and if their procedures were proper to begin with, that is. The investigations into the suicides are ongoing.

?When you deal with the D.C. Jail, you think the Pentagon. It?s the same beast. They will lie,? stated Phil Fornaci, Director of the D.C. Prisoners Project. ?Generally speaking, you won?t get straight information.?

The D.C. Prisoners Project has sued the D.C. Jail multiple times for violating prisoners? rights. Apparently there is a need for more legal scrutiny to get the DOC and its medical contractor to provide adequate mental health screening and care.

Sources: Legal Times;; Washington Post

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