Suit against Howard jail over suicide is dismissed Inmate's family claimed detention center ignored his potential to kill self

August 04, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

A federal judge has dismissed a $3 million lawsuit against the Howard County Detention Center by the family of a dead inmate that alleged jail staff deliberately ignored the inmate's potential for suicide.

The ruling, issued Wednesday, was a relief to officials at the beleaguered jail, where Howard County police are conducting a separate investigation of alleged sexual misconduct between male officers and female inmates.

Officials at the jail were briefed by police Friday about the progress of that investigation and expect a written report this week. Jail and police officials would not comment on the briefing Friday.

The 361-bed detention center in Jessup has been the subject of increasing scrutiny since the Dec. 9 suicide of Edward Leroy Bennett, a 31-year-old Southwest Baltimore man who hanged himself with a bedsheet from a ceiling sprinkler.

Since then, other incidents at the jail have included the discovery that a controversial captain was not certified by the state, and a lawsuit by a former inmate accusing that officer and another of beating him in detention while he was handcuffed.

Members of Bennett's family claimed in their lawsuit that jail officers ignored warnings that Bennett was a suicide risk.

They cited such indications as Bennett's withdrawal from a $100- to $150-a-day heroin habit, an incident in which witnesses claimed he threw himself down stairs in his cellblock and warnings by inmates and jail staff to watch him closely.

But in a six-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin wrote that the evidence presented in the suit failed to prove that the jail's staff knew the inmate was suicidal.

"The [U.S.] Constitution does not require correctional officers to be psychologists or suicide prevention counselors, or even to have the measure of medical training that a nurse or assistant has with regard to suicide prediction," he wrote.

County officials welcomed dismissal of the suit.

"I think it upholds the fact that the officers had properly handled ,, it," said James N. Rollins, the jail's director, who at the time of Bennett's death said his investigation showed no fault on the part of his staff.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- who visited the jail Thursday -- issued a statement about the case to show support for the jail.

"I stated from the beginning that the detention center handled this incident appropriately, and the judgment in this case supports that conclusion," Ecker wrote. "I do want to state, though, that no death is acceptable."

But an attorney for the Bennett family said jail authorities had clear indications that Bennett was a suicide risk, even though he left no note, had no history of suicide attempts and had not explicitly threatened to kill himself.

"We thought there was a case to be made for 'deliberate indifference,' but the judge didn't see it that way," said attorney John Amato. "We probably will refile the case in state court. If we do that, we would only have to show negligence."

Claims in Maryland negligence suits are capped at $100,000.

Experts said at the time of the suicide that if officers had had sufficient training, they would have recognized Bennett's suicide potential.

But at least one of those experts said Friday he was not surprised by the judge's ruling.

Deliberate indifference -- the specific allegation in the suit -- is "a very difficult standard for a jail to be found to have violated," said Lindsay Hayes, assistant director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Mansfield, Mass. "The plaintiff basically has to document that the decedent was suicidal or potentially suicidal."

He said such documentation might include a note or an explicit statement of intent to commit suicide. None of that happened in the Bennett case.

Despite the tough standard, attorneys often pursue federal claims because there is no cap on the amount a plaintiff can seek, Hayes said.

"A negligence claim is far easier to prove," Hayes said. "You only have to prove that a jail didn't take the proper steps to prevent the suicide. There's not that heightened burden that has to be proved."

Howard County jail officials have had to contend with a number of controversies this year:

In May, jail Capt. Thomas V. Kimball was found to lack the certification needed to hold his position. He was ordered to attend the state's training academy and is expected to graduate Aug. 13. He is expected to resume his position as shift commander after that.

In a separate incident, Kimball, who oversaw about half of the jail's 99 officers, and Officer Alex Harold Jacobs have been accused of assault and battery by a former inmate who says he was beaten while handcuffed at the jail. A trial is set for Aug. 15.

On July 22, Rollins called the county police Internal Affairs Division to investigate a jail employee's allegations of sexual misconduct involving male officers and female inmates. The jail usually houses about 250 inmates, of whom about 10 percent are women.

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