Vigilance on jail suicides Cavalier attitude over inmate's death at detention center is inexcusable.

February 02, 1996

ALMOST AS SAD as the suicide of an inmate in the Howard County Detention Center was the jail director's simplistic assessment that, "People are going to commit suicide in prison -- it happens."

That insensitive remark by James N. "Buck" Rollins doesn't instill confidence that jail authorities did everything they could to prevent the death of Edward Leroy Bennett. Indeed, details about the incident suggest Mr. Bennett provided considerable reason to believe he might attempt to take his own life and that the steps jail officials took to prevent that from happening were woefully inadequate.

The 31-year-old heroin addict was arrested Dec. 8 on charges stemming from a 1993 theft of scrap metal in North Laurel. He told jail officials he was suffering withdrawal from a $100-a-day drug habit and had a history of paranoia. He was given medication for his withdrawal symptoms. The jail has a drug-abuse treatment unit and a suicide-watch cell, but he was placed in a regular cell. The next day, Mr. Bennett told another inmate he didn't think he was going to make it and the comment was reported to jailers. Hours later, Mr. Bennett either fell or threw himself down the stairs of his cellblock. Guards were ordered to watch him closely, but no special steps were taken. He was not taken to the drug abuse unit. He was not taken to the suicide-watch unit, where someone would have checked on him every 15 minutes. That evening, he was found hanged with a bedsheet from a ceiling water sprinkler in his cell. Jail officials didn't report the death to the public; it only became known a month later when guards wrote letters about it to the media. That secrecy has added to suspicions about the incident.

Mr. Rollins is right. Suicides do happen in jails. In fact, they're the second leading cause of death in jails after illness from natural causes. But he knows suicides are less likely to happen if careful monitoring occurs. The Howard County Detention Center includes special units where that type of monitoring is possible, but with Mr. Bennett it did not occur. County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he and Mr. Rollins will review the incident to determine whether jail procedures should be changed. In this case, it seems more a question of whether procedures were properly followed. If not, disciplinary action should be taken.

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