Suicide is the leading cause of death among jail detainees according to an August 2015 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. While 80% of jails in the U.S. reported no deaths in 2013, six percent reported two or more. Florida’s Alachua County Jail (ACJ) fell into the latter category in both 2013 and 2015.
More than 12,875 people were booked into the ACJ in 2013, and of those 169 were placed in observation cells for suicide prevention after intake screenings. Nineteen attempted suicide, stated Art Forgey, a spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. That was more than twice the suicide attempts at the jail the year before.
A number of factors contribute to jails having high suicide rates. “They [the detainees] have no idea how long they’re going to be there, and they’re not sure they could bond out the next day or stay the entire length of their proceedings,” said Lindsay M. Hayes, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. “The inmates are separated from their families. It’s a lot of anxiety and stress.”
Dealing with suicidal prisoners can be challenging. “People who want to kill themselves are bound and determined,” remarked ACJ Major Charlie Lee. “This is not a mental health facility, but unfortunately we have people [who] have committed a crime and we’re supposed to keep them in a state that they can deal with their criminal charges.”
ACJ guard Alex Brown failed miserably in that duty on May 30, 2013, when detainee Jermaine Green hanged himself from an air vent in his suicide watch pod while Brown sat a few feet away playing on his PlayStation Portable and listening to music.
Over a 22-minute period, Green made eight attempts to hang himself as he stood on his bed. Finally he took strips from his anti-suicide smock and stood on the toilet to hang himself from the vent.
When two guards tried to open the cell door to cut Green down, Brown stopped one of them from calling for medical assistance. It was not until Green went limp that he allowed the call. A supervisor had to tell Brown to turn his music down when help arrived; Brown was later suspended without pay for five days and placed on probation for a year.
Several months later, detainees Austin Dionne, 23, and Miguel A. Hernandez, 20, committed suicide at ACJ within less than a three-week period. Although Dionne had a history of mental illness, jail officials said he gave “no indication” of being “an imminent suicide risk” according to an internal report. Dionne was found hanging from a bed sheet within hours of his arrest on September 28, 2013.
Hernandez was upset about being placed in “the crazy pod” after marks on his arms indicated a history of self-harm. Despite being on 15-minute cell checks, he attempted to hang himself on October 15, 2013, and died 10 days later.
ACJ officials refurbished the cells to prevent future suicide attempts. Yet if guards fail to perform their duty to monitor the most “bound and determined” prisoners, such measures would fail to stop those who want to kill themselves.
In June 2015, the ACJ made the news once again after two detainees managed to commit suicide a week apart. Both Joel Rizzo, 22, and William Bryan, 33, had used their bed sheets as nooses. Both were pronounced dead at the hospital.
This new spate of suicides prompted another investigation and internal review, according to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
“If our detention officers were following procedures and protocol for these then I don’t know that there is anything that could’ve been done differently. However in light of what they find it may lead to a change where we continue to not provide top sheets or we [conduct] those checks quicker than 15 minutes,” said Forgey.
As noted in the report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the vast majority of jails report no deaths – suicides or otherwise – each year. The number of suicides at the AJC is therefore cause for concern, though apparently not enough concern for jail officials to implement reforms and require additional staff training to prevent more prisoners from killing themselves.
Sources: www.gainesville.com, www.wcjb.com, www.bjs.gov
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