Suicide at Howard jail suggests guards erred Experts say jailers ignored warning signs from addicted inmate

January 29, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

From the time Edward Leroy Bennett entered the Howard County Detention Center -- saying he was withdrawing from a $100-a-day heroin habit -- jail officials had repeated warnings that the 31-year-old addict might pose a danger to himself.

They treated his symptoms with medication, but did not put him under close observation, in the jail's drug-abuse treatment unit or in its suicide-watch cell. Guards reportedly made jokes about his drug habit to his face.

A little more than a day later -- on Dec. 9 -- Mr. Bennett, from Southwest Baltimore, hanged himself with a bedsheet from a ceiling water sprinkler in his cell.

The suicide, the jail's second since 1991, only came to light because inmates wrote letters to the news media.

Howard jail officials say that they acted properly and that Mr. Bennett's suicide could not have been prevented. But the jail's staff failed to heed warning signals that he might be suicidal:

* When Mr. Bennett was taken to the jail Dec. 8, he told correctional officers and medical personnel he was withdrawing from a $100- to $150-a-day heroin habit and he had a history of paranoia, according to police reports.

* About 11 a.m. the next day, Mr. Bennett told inmate Kenneth Coffey he "was on the verge of tears" and, "I don't know if I'm going to make it." In an interview, Mr. Coffey told The Sun he passed this information to correctional officer Joshua Osiruphu'el. (Officials barred interviews with jail guards.)

* About 3:40 p.m. that day, Mr. Bennett fell or threw himself down the stairs of his cellblock, police and jail reports say. Medical staff called to the scene reported that Mr. Bennett was lying "in a fetal position" and shouting, "Get the bugs off me!" according to portions of a jail medical report read aloud to a Sun reporter by jail security supervisor McLindsey Hawkins. (Officials would not release jail medical reports.)

Officials then increased Mr. Bennett's dosage of Vistaril, a drug that combats withdrawal symptoms, and added another drug, clonidine, used for hypertension, a police report says. Guards also moved him from a second-floor cell to one on the ground floor, police and jail reports show.

* At 4 p.m., jail guards Osiruphu'el and Alex Jacobs warned a third guard, Anthony Ravenell, at a shift change "to keep a close eye on" Mr. Bennett because of the incident on the steps, a jail report says.

But no additional precautions were taken. According to police reports and interviews with inmates, guards even taunted Mr. Bennett about his drug habit, joking: "We're going to get you your dope."

Jail officials defend their treatment of Mr. Bennett, noting that neither he nor anyone else directly reported he was suicidal. "People are going to commit suicide in prison -- it happens," said James N. "Buck" Rollins, the Jessup jail's director. "We had no indication that [Mr. Bennett] was suicidal. We did nothing wrong."

But an international consultant on jail suicide prevention, Joseph R. Rowan of Minnesota, says "reasonably trained" correctional officers would have recognized the "substantial" warnings of Mr. Bennett's suicide.

"They should have considered him a high suicide risk," Mr. Rowan said. "In preventing suicides, you don't have to be a rocket scientist: Common sense prevails. The staff apparently did not heed that warning."

The jail kept Mr. Bennett in a regular cellblock where he was checked once per hour and at dinner -- not in its administrative segregation unit or its suicide-prevention cell, both places where he would have been checked at least every 15 minutes.

The jail also did not send him to its 28-bed drug unit, where inmates receive treatment for drug addiction after medical referral.

At 7:05 p.m. Dec. 9, a guard making routine rounds found Mr. Bennett hanging from a sprinkler head in his locked cell, alone. A police report says he had folded a mattress on the bed, stacked a folded blanket on top and then stood on both to reach the sprinkler, about 10 feet off the floor.

Mr. Bennett's suicide was not made public until weeks after his death. The day Mr. Bennett died, the jail director wrote a note about the incident and gave it to a shift commander in case reporters happened to call. But it did not become public until inmates wrote letters to local news media.

The Bennett family has hired a lawyer to investigate the death. Relatives are angry about what they see as the jail's failure to heed clear signs their son was suicidal.

"Once he went into their doors, he was their responsibility," said his mother, Charlotte Bennett, who said she was barred by police from viewing his body at Howard County General Hospital the night of his death. "I'm not saying they should have put him in a country club, but they should have done something."

But Mr. Rollins, the jail's director for the past five years and warden at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore for three years before that, said: "You can look at this thing as a 'woulda, coulda, shoulda' thing. But we did what we normally do."

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