After reports that the floor of the Baltimore County Women's Detention Center where a Randallstown woman committed suicide was left unattended for about 40 minutes before her death, detention center administrators have stopped the longtime practice of ordering staff to leave their posts.
However, the administrator of the county's two detention centers said yesterday that he doesn't believe the lack of an officer could be blamed for the suicide July 19 of Sommer Brooks, 23, who was accused of torturing and beating her mother to death in January.
"An officer makes rounds every hour. Ms. Brooks could have hung herself with the officer on the floor," said Jim O'Neill, administrator of the two county detention centers in Towson.
But staff at the jail said "collapsing," or leaving posts unattended, is among the most dangerous staffing practices highlighted by the suicide.
"If an officer wasn't needed there, there wouldn't be one on the floor at all," said Nick Haynes, a former detention center supervisor and field representative for the county's Federation of Public Employees, the union that represents about 240 correctional officers and supervisors.
Brooks was scheduled to go to trial Sept. 24 on a first-degree murder charge in the death of her mother, Linda Carol Brooks, 52, who was fatally beaten with an ax and maul in their Randallstown home.
After several months of evaluation at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, the state's maximum-security psychiatric hospital in Jessup, a psychiatrist concluded that Brooks was competent to stand trial and was criminally responsible in the killing. She was returned to the county jail June 10.
Despite several earlier suicide attempts, three psychiatrists agreed that Brooks could be taken off suicide watch June 30 and she was placed by herself in a protective custody cell, O'Neill said.
The correctional officer watching Brooks and about 50 other inmates July 19 had been ordered to leave the floor unattended while she processed two new inmates at the facility, jail records show.
As a result, no security staff was on the C floor of the Women's Detention Center from about 12:05 a.m. until about 12:45 a.m., when a supervisor discovered Brooks had hanged herself, jail logs show.
In a memo that was posted last weekend, jail administrators said staff will no longer leave inmates unattended to take care of other routine duties, such as processing new inmates or taking meal breaks.
"This practice shall cease immediately as we continue to maintain the safety and security of the facility," Deputy Administrator Deborah J. Richardson wrote in the memo dated July 24.
Union officials said that county administrators have known that staff felt it was not safe to leave their posts since 1998 when a correctional officer refused to leave her post on the midnight shift and was suspended from duty - a decision upheld by the county's labor board.
Jeffrey Magness, president of the union, said, "I agree with Mr. O'Neill that if this inmate had wanted to kill herself, she would have found a way." But, he said, he was sorry that it took a death to address the practice of leaving posts unstaffed.
To keep all positions staffed this week, a supervisor has filled vacant posts, leaving one supervisor to respond to emergencies on the midnight shift, jail records show.
O'Neill said that having one supervisor to respond to an emergency is "adequate." But, he said, he is studying whether an additional officer needs to be assigned to the midnight shift to process new inmates at the Women's Detention Center, which houses about 300 inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences.
O'Neill said Brooks had continued to receive her medication. But, he said, it was possible that Brooks had manipulated her evaluation to be taken off close-watch status.
"It's unfortunate any time someone takes their life," O'Neill said. "But in this case, the mental health and correctional professionals did their jobs."