Officials will probe suicide of inmate Jessup jail director, Ecker to consider changing procedures

January 30, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Howard County's executive and its jail director said yesterday that they will review and consider changing the jail's procedures for identifying potentially suicidal inmates.

Their comments followed an article in The Sun yesterday that detailed how guards at the Howard County Detention Center failed to heed warning signs that might have prevented the suicide last month of a 31-year-old inmate, Edward Leroy Bennett of Southwest Baltimore.

"We have prevented many suicides," said James N. Rollins, the jail director. "My officers do receive training but we'll review our policies and see if there are any changes needed."

The Dec. 9 suicide, the second at the jail since 1991, was not publicized until inmates wrote letters to the news media.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that in the future, the county will issue news releases when there are deaths at the jail.

He also said he will look into whether the jail followed proper procedures in Mr. Bennett's case and whether the jail's current procedures are adequate. When that inquiry will be conducted has not been decided, Mr. Ecker said.

"In hindsight, it's easy to say [the procedures] were not adequate," Mr. Ecker said in defense of the jail. "I don't know if we should change them or not."

County Councilman Darrel Drown supported the jail, saying, "We don't need to spend a whole bunch of time on the rules, policies and procedures. We shouldn't be putting the correctional officers and the police on trial."

Mr. Bennett, who was arrested Dec. 8 on charges stemming from a 1993 theft of scrap metal in North Laurel, committed suicide 31 hours after he entered the Jessup jail.

When he arrived at the jail, he told guards that he was withdrawing from a $100- to $150-a-day heroin habit and had a history of paranoia, records show. He also exhibited other behavior that national suicide-prevention experts said indicated guards should have put him under close watch.

The jail treated his withdrawal symptoms with medication and placed him in a regular cell, records show, instead of under administrative segregation in its drug-abuse treatment unit or in its suicide-watch cell.

Local and national advocates for inmates said yesterday that jail officers need to protect inmates' lives.

"They're human beings. I don't care what the person has done," said Pauline Sullivan, co-director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), an inmate advocacy group in Washington that lobbies Congress and legislatures in 30 states, including Maryland.

Ms. Sullivan said deaths in jails and prisons are "a national problem." She said CURE has been pushing for national laws requiring that correctional facilities report all deaths in correctional institutions because "sometimes deaths are suspicious and sometimes there's negligence by the authorities."

Requiring correctional officials to report all deaths is "a way of telling the authorities that the citizens are watching," Ms. Sullivan said.

In Mr. Bennett's case, advocates say, they are particularly concerned with the possibility that the jail didn't recognize signs that he might be suicidal.

"It seems like there was a lack of support," said George Martin, president of the Howard County Clergy for Social Justice. "There should be a closer eye kept on people in that situation."

In August, during a state inspection of the jail, auditors found the jail was in compliance with medical and mental health standards, said Donald Jones, executive director of the state's Commission on Correctional Standards. "At that time, there were no problems in that area," he said.

The state requires that jails have written policies and procedures for medical screening of inmates by qualified health care personnel within 24 hours of their admission. There is no state standard that deals specifically with assessing the risk of an inmate suicide, Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Bennett was given a medical assessment by a nurse when he arrived at the jail, but Howard jail officials would not release his medical records to The Sun.

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