San Antonio, Texas Leads the State in Jail Suicides
by Matt Clarke
A 2013 study of jail deaths in four densely-populated Texas counties found that Bexar County leads the state in the number of prisoners who commit suicide. From 2009 through 2013, Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, reported 12 jail suicides according to data compiled by a KSAT-TV investigative news team.
Since the results of the study were published on November 18, 2013, two more suicides occurred at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center in 2014.
The news team determined that the Harris County Jail in Houston reported six suicides during the same time period; Travis County (Austin) reported three, while Tarrant County (Fort Worth) had just one jail suicide. The report said Dallas County officials refused to respond to requests for information.
Bexar County Jail Administrator Raul Banasco maintained that even though the facility takes precautions to prevent self-inflicted deaths, the number of suicides is not unusual for a jail of its size.
“The detention staff [and] the detention deputies, are responsible to do supervision checks,” Banasco stated. “Depending on the category of the individual, we provide them with the appropriate supervision.”
Banasco said that prior to his arrival at the jail in June 2013, the number of suicides was an even greater problem. “There has been a history of that type of situation that’s occurred in this agency,” he admitted.
“There’s no excuse,” declared Ana Yáñez-Correa with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a reform group that has worked closely with county commissioners to reduce the number of prisoner suicides. “Texans cycle through the local jails every year and let’s not forget many of these people haven’t yet been convicted of anything.”
Banasco and others have claimed that one reason suicides have grown more common in recent years is the lack of funding for mental health care.
“Local jail detentions, as well as state correctional facilities, have now become an environment where we warehouse and house and treat the mentally ill,” Banasco said. “There is a shortage of state mental health beds.”
“Our jail is essentially another mental health facility,” agreed Joel Janssen, president of the union that represents Bexar County jail guards.
Martha Rodriguez, who runs the Detention Health Care System branch of University Health Systems (UHS), the jail’s medical provider, said she believes the increased number of suicides can be traced to a corresponding increase in prisoners with mental health conditions – a trend her agency has documented.
Banasco said another factor is that detainees are not always truthful when questioned during booking about their mental health problems and suicidal tendencies.
“We ask them very key questions – trigger questions – to deal with medical [or] mental health issues,” he noted. “One of the most important aspects of detention and corrections is the safety of the detainee. Every inmate, every detainee in the jail, has access to medical and mental services 24/7.”
In April 2010, nationally-recognized suicide prevention expert Lindsay M. Hayes delivered a scathing report to Bexar County officials that documented a long list of failures by jail and UHS staff in recognizing prisoners at risk of suicide. For example, Hayes found that while the jail had proper mental health screening tools, employees were not using them. Further, he said a 10-cell special section of the jail called a Suicide Prevention Unit was a “misnomer,” because it rarely housed prisoners on suicide watch and had no “appreciably enhanced services” other than two guards and one UHS staff member.
“[I]t would appear that the jail system has an unexplained tolerance for potentially suicidal behavior that has resulted in the under-utilization of the Suicide Prevention Unit, as well as other units, for the housing of inmates,” the report stated. Jail officials said the unit has since been revamped.
Hayes also faulted jail staff for keeping prisoners on suicide watch for too short a time period and unnecessarily stripping non-violent suicidal prisoners of their clothing and property, instead making them wear “safety smocks” without undergarments and placing them in isolation cells for 24 hours at a time. Hayes said that type of confinement is known to actually increase suicidal tendencies, adding that the average suicide watch of 24 hours is “considerably less than this writer’s experience in consulting with other correctional facilities throughout the country.”
Most of the suicides at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center were caused by asphyxia via hanging. In 2009, a record year for suicides, all five prisoner deaths at the facility were ruled suicides. Previously, deaths from natural causes, such as medical conditions, exceeded the number of suicides at the lock-up.
In the most recent incident, Felix Chavarria, 33, who was jailed awaiting trial on robbery charges, died in November 2014 following a suicide attempt in his cell on Thanksgiving Day. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office reported that Chavarria was taken to University Hospital, where he died later that night.
On February 7, 2014, Nathaniel Gamez, 25, was declared dead less than 30 minutes after a guard discovered him unconscious in his segregation cell. Authorities said Gamez, who had a history of incarceration and had returned to the jail just one day earlier for allegedly assaulting a family member, appeared to be “alert and in normal/good condition” when guards last checked on him before he committed suicide.
Family members of prisoners who killed themselves have expressed frustration over the county’s refusal to provide details about what happened to their loved ones at the jail.
“So much of what the county does, they do behind closed doors,” stated attorney Jesse Hernandez, who represents the family of prisoner Harlan McVea, who hung himself in his cell in 2009. “And when people like this family come to ask questions about how this happened, why it happened, can it be prevented, they’re stonewalled. And it leaves them no choice but to come to folks like us and to file a lawsuit just to get the basic courtesies of finding out what happened to their loved ones.”
Sources: San Antonio Current, www.mysanantonio.com, www.ksat.com
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