Internal review clears Howard jail in suicide Inmate's relatives tell Ecker they'll sue county

February 25, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

An in-house review by officials at the Howard County Detention Center has concluded that jail staff did nothing wrong in connection with an inmate who killed himself Dec. 9.

"I'm satisfied they followed the [proper] policies and procedures," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker of the report released Friday. The jail's policies and procedures "do not need to be changed. I think they're adequate," he said.

But family members of Edward Leroy Bennett Sr., who hanged himself in his cell, have notified the county executive that they will file a $3 million negligence suit against the county on behalf of Mr. Bennett's 8- and 10-year-old sons.

"All the warning signs were evident in this case," said John Amato, an attorney representing the Bennett family. "When you start lumping all that stuff together, you start wondering why he was not placed in a suicide-safe cell."

The head of a state inmate advocacy group said the county's investigative committee should have included members from outside the jail.

"I'm very disgusted," said Azora Irby-Muntasir, director of Maryland Citizens for the Rehabilitation of Errants. The in-house investigation is "a joke," she said.

The family's formal notice of intent to sue -- delivered to the county executive last week -- comes after a Jan. 29 article in The Sun outlined how jail officials failed to heed warning signs the inmate was potentially suicidal.

The State Medical Examiner's office has ruled the death a suicide but has yet to release an autopsy report.

Although he apparently never stated he was suicidal, Mr. Bennett, of Southwest Baltimore, told guards when he arrived at the jail Dec. 8 that he was withdrawing from a $100- to $150-a-day heroin habit and had a history of paranoia. During his roughly 31-hour stay, he also demonstrated a series of behaviors that signaled he was troubled, according to police and jail records and interviews with jail inmates and officials.

Jail suicide experts told The Sun those warnings should have signaled to jail personnel that Mr. Bennett might pose a danger to himself and needed to be placed on watch in a suicide-safe cell.

Mr. Amato criticized the jail about accounts from inmates and police reports that guards taunted Mr. Bennett and joked about his drug problem.

James N. "Buck" Rollins, the jail's director, said he investigated the death immediately after it happened and found his staff followed proper procedures.

But after The Sun's report -- and under orders from Mr. Ecker -- the jail director reviewed the case.

He picked five members of the detention center's security, personnel and contract medical staffs to conduct a two-week review of the jail's policies and procedures.

The resulting 84-page report gives no details about how guards and medical staff treated Mr. Bennett or about his behavior and mental state.

Mr. Rollins said his staff has had -- and continues to receive -- regular training in suicide detection and inmate safety.

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