3 suicides reported at lockup since Aug. Central Booking procedures not to blame, officials say

December 04, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The state's year-old Central Booking and Intake Center has had three apparent suicides in the past four months -- an unusually high number -- but officials say their screening and monitoring procedures are not to blame.

In each case, the inmate was found hanging with a bedsheet around his neck that had been attached to the top bunk of his cell.

In the latest incident, Norman E. Soaper, 21, was found dead in the booking center's north tower about 1 p.m. Friday. Soaper of Leonardtown, St. Mary's County, had last been seen about 45 minutes earlier when he received his lunch, said Barbara Cooper, a spokeswoman for the booking center.

Soaper was awaiting a bail review on charges of theft, drug possession and possession with intent to distribute. He also had outstanding warrants on various offenses in Prince George's County, said Alfred I. Murphy, warden of the booking center.

Central Booking opened Nov. 28, 1995, to process everyone arrested in Baltimore in one location, replacing lockups at the city's nine police districts. With the help of automation, it is designed to speed the identification and processing of about 70,000 suspects a year. It also has 811 jail beds.

The high-tech jail's first suicide, Aug. 8, involved a former state correctional officer, Michael A. Mitchell, 37, who was being held without bail on drug-distribution charges.

On Sept. 13, Lavon C. Hinton, 45, was the center's second suicide victim. He was being held on burglary and trespassing charges.

None of the three men had indicated suicidal tendencies in an initial questionnaire, officials said. Thus, they were not on suicide watch, in which inmates are given only paper gowns and checked at least every 15 minutes.

In 1993 -- the most recent year for which national statistics are available -- 29 of 33 Maryland jails responding to a federal survey reported three suicides; 234 were reported nationwide. In earlier federal surveys -- conducted every five years -- the state's local jails reported six suicides in 1988, three in 1983 and three in 1978.

Soaper's death was the 13th by suicide in the five years since the state took over the city's detention centers, a figure Stephen Berman, chief psychologist for Pretrial Detention and Services, called "well below" the national average in a memo to his boss, Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan.

Officials said yesterday that they were confident that whatever explained the rash of suicides, their screening procedures were not to blame. "It has absolutely nothing to do with the facility," Murphy said. "Procedures are right on."

But Berman said the newness of the building might have contributed. Offenders accustomed to being booked in police districts find both the new process and facility intimidating, and are increasingly led to panic, he said.

"It scares the hell out of them. They're not accustomed to the zTC people here," he said.

Last week -- four days before Soaper's death -- jail officials built in an automated process to expedite screening of troubled inmates. Any "yes" answers to a series of questions about suicide risks now automatically print out in the dispensary, triggering immediate follow-up by a nurse, Flanagan said.

All suspects who are held at the jail after their bail is reviewed by a judge undergo a complete medical evaluation.

But those who do not show signs of wanting to hurt themselves cannot be monitored continuously, Flanagan said.

"If someone wants to commit suicide, they're going to do that," he said.

Anthony Swetz, director of inmate health-care services for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which operates the booking center, said screening procedures were in conformance with those issued by the National Commission on Correctional Health.

Three days after Hinton's death, officials staffed the booking center with a registered nurse around the clock to monitor inmates' health needs. Swetz said the addition was related not to the suicides, but to the need for services for an increasingly ailing population of inmates being brought to Central Booking.

A July 25 memo from former prison medical director Newton Kendig expressed concern about inmates' access to health care at Central Booking, decrying the fact that officials had delayed creating a medical unit there.

In that memo, Kendig called the former screening process "inadequate."

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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