Data show jail inmates more likely than state prisoners to commit suicide

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CINCINNATI-- Sheila McCullum thought she was teaching her 19-year-old son Timothy a lesson when she chose not to bail him out of jail.

“I thought it would help him. Show him: ‘Look, you’re in trouble.' You’re going to get in worse trouble. This needs to stop,’” she said of her son, Timothy Hughes, who was awaiting trial on robbery and drug charges in Butler County. 

Hughes never made it trial. McCullum's son killed himself inside the concrete cell nearly seven years ago -- and less than a month after his arrest.

"I still have nightmares of him hanging off the bed,'' she said.

Suicide behind bars captured headlines last year, following the high-profile suicides of Ohio death row inmate Billy Slagle in August and Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro in September. 

A WCPO analysis of prison data in Kentucky and Ohio shows:

  • Ten Ohio prisoners killed themselves in 2013, which is the highest number of suicides recorded in the state since 2007, when 11 prisoners committed suicide.
  • Ohio’s total suicide rate over the last five years is five times higher than neighboring Kentucky.

In light of the high profile deaths and recent spike in suicides, officials from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections hired outside consultants in October 2013 to conduct a review of 16 inmate suicides that occurred between January 2012 and August 2013.

Consultants criticized the falsification of logs documenting the number of times guards checked on prisoners, including Castro and Slagle and made five key recommendations in the 26-page report. Those recommendations include improving prison staff training and working more closely with county jails to get records that show which inmates are likely to kill themselves.

Suicide More Common In County Jails

Local jail inmates are more likely than state prisoners to take their own life. Suicide is the leading cause of death in American jails, according to a 2013 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It's a fact that has led one local attorney to say jails aren't doing enough to protect inmates like Hughes.

A WCPO analysis of Ohio state jail data shows:

  • Only five of 49 Ohio jail inmates who killed themselves in the past five years were on suicide watch when they died. 
  • Forty-two of those 49 inmates died by hanging themselves. 
  • There likely have been more Ohio jail suicides than what is reflected in state data because of an ambiguous and unenforced department of corrections reporting policy. 

The BSJ reports there are 17,778 inmates housed in Ohio’s local jails on an average day and 18,252 housed in Kentucky. Experts say sitting in a county jail is a new and frightening experience for many, and one that can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.  

“A person who is normal on the street comes in, and when they’re locked into this room, everything feels like it’s crushing on them,” said Rob Anderson, a corrections officer at the Clermont County Jail. “They have 23 out of 24 hours a day to think about what’s going on in their lives, perhaps people they let down, perhaps the charges themselves.”

The uncertainty that first-time inmates experience is reflected in BSJ data, which indicates that half of suicides in jails across the country between 2000 and 2011 occurred within the first week of admission. 

“They’re taken away from their family, their children,” said Anderson. “I would say them feeling they’ve let down their family is one of the biggest things that would push them to suicidal ideation.

"You see that a lot,” he said. 

Jails Self Report Statistics

In Ohio, local jails have self-reported 49 suicides to the state over past five years. But Roger Wilson, a parole program administrator at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, said that figure is likely not a reflection of all jail suicides that have occurred.

At least one suicide at the Butler County jail in 2012 was not included in the data provided by the state, and there are likely more, he said, calling ambiguous Ohio's state policy about how jails must report critical incidents. 

"There are times when they omit reporting that stuff," said Wilson. "Sometimes we find about a suicide from a newspaper article." 

Of those reported to the state: Suicide occurred more frequently in Northeast Ohio counties than in counties surrounding Greater Cincinnati. Warren County has reported three suicides to the state and Montgomery County has reported four.

County jails in Kentucky have reported 34 suicides over the past five years. Four of those were in Kenton County and two were in Grant.

The most Ohio jail suicides were reported in 2011 and the most in Kentucky were reported in 2008.

Suicide Policies Inconsistent

Jail administrators in the Tri-State say they prepare for the likelihood of suicidal behavior when a new inmate comes through their jail doors. Unlike state prison systems, there is little uniformity in policies

and procedures that protect and prevent jail inmates from killing themselves.

In Ohio, state minimum standards require all jails to have a plan for identifying and responding to suicidal prisoners. Each plan can be different, as long as it includes a system for staff training, screening new inmates for suicidal signs, assessing suicide risk levels, monitoring at-risk inmates and intervening when a suicide is in progress.  

Ohio state regulators didn’t check those jail suicide plans between 2008 and 2013 in Butler, Warren, Hamilton and Clermont counties—in addition to most other counties throughout Ohio due to budget cuts that eliminated annual state inspections until this year.  

Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati-based civil rights attorney who has represented some families of Ohio jail inmates who have committed suicide, is troubled by inconsistencies in suicide policies. He said he is also troubled by unequal financial resources and differing administrative mentalities at county jails. 

“In jails, it’s just too much hit and miss and it's too dependent on the local sheriffs without enough guidance from the state,” said Gerhardstein. “Because of lack of funding and everybody being stretched so thin, you can have wonderful policies and procedures, wonderful training materials and bad delivery of service. “

Gerhardstein, who has two or three pending lawsuits against county jails, said he thinks Ohio jails are doing an inadequate job of protecting inmates from committing suicide.  

“The issue is not ‘Give me a 100 percent guarantee that no inmate will ever commit suicide.’ The issue is ‘Are you doing your basic minimum?’ The basic minimum that’s been set by the Ohio Administrative Code to prevent suicides, and many jails flunk that,” he said.

Protecting Inmates From Self-Harm

Most county jail administrators in the Tri-State said they are confident that their suicide policies and procedures work.

At the Campbell County jail, for example, which had no reported suicides in the last five years, jailer Jim Dailey said his staff screens inmates during the booking process to assess suicide risk. Authorities ask about sleeping, guilt and if an inmate has tried suicide in the past.

If an inmate is deemed at risk, Dailey said mental health professionals get involved to classify the severity of their depression. Inmates who are considered at critical or high risk are immediately placed into an isolation cell.

They also are given special clothing and a blanket that's nearly impossible to tear or create a noose. That's what killed McCullum's son and at least 40 of the 49 inmates who killed themselves at Ohio jails over the last five years, according to state records examined by WCPO. 

Inmates on suicide watch are also served utensil-free meals in a Styrofoam tray to ensure they don’t use the silverware or plastic tray to harm themselves. They’re also monitored through surveillance cameras at the Campbell County jail, where corrections staff are ordered to check on at-risk inmates every 20 minutes. 

In Ohio, corrections officers are required to check on inmates placed on suicide watch at least every 10 minutes.  At the Clermont County jail, Anderson patrols the halls, peeking inside eight isolation rooms to ensure potentially suicidal inmate are still breathing, He knocks on the door, and sometimes goes inside to reassure the person that their life is worth living.

“I would try to use an understanding, calm voice,” he said. I would come up to you and I would say ‘Ma’am, what’s going on today? How can I help you?’ You know and simply, I’d ask you ‘Are there any mental concerns that we have to deal with?’”

Protecting a population accused of sometimes heinous crimes can be a sensitive subject for the public and some tasked with the job. 

"As a corrections officer, sometimes its hard to know what the person's charges are. You know, we are all human as well and you wouldn't want something happening to the victim that perhaps this person did to that person but you're legally bound to make sure that these people make it to trial, you know, get through their situation as best they can," said Anderson. 

But only five of the 49 inmates who committed suicide over the last five years were on suicide watch when they died, according to a WCPO analysis of state records. 

Challenging Job

Jail administrators admit it can be challenging to stop a person who's really intent on ending their life. 

"If you don't exhibit any signs of stress or, you know, distress, I would have no idea so you would be processed and placed in general population," said Anthony Dwyer, chief deputy at the Butler County Jail. 

In many county jails like the Clermont County, Kenton County, and Butler County jails, the ratio of officers to inmates is low.

“Some of the blocks we have a ratio of 48 inmates to one officer so obviously if you have two or three inmates in that block who are having issues, the officer is focusing on those two or three and the rest of the inmates have opportunities

to do things,” said Bill Hogue, a captain at the Clermont County Jail.

Hogue said he’s seen inmates intent on killing themselves take extreme measures. Some have tried to drown themselves in a bathroom toilet, cut their arms with paint chips and use their fingernails like knives to cut their skin. 

“Actually, most of the serious suicide attempts we have are people who have been very quiet about having issues,” said Hogue. “They don’t show any of the signs but they are committing to doing it.”

When a suicide occurs, jail administrators say they review and perfect their policies.

“We take a hard look to see what we did right and what we could have done better,” said Hogue.

Multimedia producer Brian Niesz contributed to this story.

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