Independent review of Ohio prison suicides to include Lebanon prisoner's death

LEBANON, Ohio -- The death of a 31-year-old prisoner found hanging in his cell at Lebanon Correctional Institution last week will be included in an independent review of Ohio prison suicides, according to a top official at the state’s department of rehabilitation and corrections.

Stuart Hudson, chief of medical services at the department, said Friday that two independent national corrections experts will treat the death of James Blackburn, of Trumbull County, as a suicide in their review, although the Warren County Coroner’s office has not yet officially ruled it as such.

Blackburn was found dead Sept. 10 by his cell mate, who had cut a noose from around Blackburn’s neck and placed him on the floor before first responders arrived.

His death would mark the third case of an Ohio prisoner killing himself in two months and the eighth suicide in Ohio prisons this year — a spike that prompted the department to enlist the outside help of consultants Fred Cohen and Lindsay Hayes for an independent review of the state prison system’s suicide policies and procedures. 

“Whenever you see spikes, we are concerned. We like to think we’re looking at things objectively, but it’s always good to have an expert come in the field to really take a look at what we’re doing and get a fresh perspective on things,” said Hudson. 

The experts, who will arrive in early October, have been tasked with examining the two recent high profile suicides of death row inmate Billy Slagle on Aug. 4 and Cleveland Kidnapper Ariel Castro on Sept. 3. They were also ordered to expand their review to what could be as many as 16 suicides that have occurred in Ohio prisons during the past two years.

“As a backdrop, [they will] look at the previous suicides from the rest of the year to just kind of analyze what’s going on, see if there’s any trends, do a close study of all of the relevant mental health and security files,” said Hudson.

The experts have also been invited to interview staff, inmates and study the state’s existing policy and procedures to determine if changes need to be made. They’re expected to deliver a report to department with their findings and make recommendations by Nov. 15.

“We intend to determine if there are recommendations to change that we can do immediately, and then if there’s long-term changes that need to be made to the system,” said Hudson. “We are very open minded about this…I think you will not find anyone in our department that is siloed to say we are not open to change.”  

This isn’t the first time the department has enlisted outside help to review its suicide policies and procedures. The state brought in one of the same independent contractors in 2004, after they noticed a similar increase in suicides in the state’s prison system.

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