2 Prison Deaths Ruled Suicides

Police say inmates hanged themselves in April and August

September 25, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Howard County police have ruled that two of the three deaths at the Howard County Detention Center this year were suicides, finding that one prisoner was able to slip a shaving razor past guards and the other likely tried to hang himself a day earlier in the jail, according to police records released this week.

The first incident took place April 1, when 33-year-old Dean Cumbie, wanted in Georgia on identity theft and drunken-driving charges, hanged himself with a bed sheet attached to a vent. The day of his death, Cumbie wrote corrections officers a suicide note in ketchup: "can't take pain anymore, medical knew I needed meds," according to records in the case file.

Following protocol, corrections staff had confiscated Cumbie's six medications, which included several addictive painkillers and muscle relaxers, when they booked him two days earlier. Detention Center Director Melanie C. Pereira said this week that medical staff members, who are employees of a private contractor, were working to verify the legitimacy of his out-of-state prescriptions when Cumbie died.

The department, however, did know that he was experiencing pain. Pereira said that medical staff members gave Cumbie a "blister pack" of acetaminophen. An autopsy report found that Cumbie had ingested 20 of those pills in the 24 hours preceding his death, according to police records.

In addition to the pills, a medical examiner found evidence of prior trauma to Cumbie's neck.

Corrections officers told police that the inmate was in a solitary cell because he had broken a sprinkler head in his old cell for "defiance purposes."

But a supplemental police report outlining the medical examiner's results stated: "There were signs of significant trauma to the neck area of Cumbie, which were not consistent with the events that occurred on 4-1-05. ... In hindsight, it is believed he broke the sprinkler head during a hanging attempt."

Pereira said that detention center officials disagree with that conclusion.

"There were no torn sheets in his cell that would have indicated a hanging attempt," she said. "Inmates pull sprinkler heads for a number of reasons. His statement to us was that it was leaking and that he was trying to stop the leak. We're not sure why he pulled it."

The second suicide took place Aug. 1. Wilfredo Hernandez, 31, of Columbia hanged himself, using a sheet tied to a shoestring that hung from a vent, according to a police report. He also had slashed his forearms with a shaving razor.

Hernandez's unit did not allow razors; his previous unit, however, did. Pereira said that Hernandez, who was facing assault charges from a fight and was being transferred because other inmates were harassing him, was searched during the process, but only one razor was confiscated.

Another inmate, who speaks limited English, told police through a translator that Hernandez had said the night before his death that he wanted to kill himself - that he did not want to be "locked up" and that he wanted to be deported. The inmate said that he told a corrections officer this, but he wasn't sure the officer understood him, according to police records.

Pereira said the detention center has no documentation of that conversation and that Hernandez's former cellmate, who had just moved out that day, was bilingual. She said there also was a Spanish-speaking officer on duty at the time of the death.

"This is a typical scenario," said Lindsay M. Hayes, an expert on jail and prison suicides with the Baltimore-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. "An inmate says one thing. A corrections officer says another. Without any kinds of other verification or documentation, such as whether the inmate reported a history of mental illness or details of his verbal and nonverbal behavior, it's hard to know where the truth is."

Records concerning the third death - that of 38-year-old Joseph Edward McGee - were not available because the investigation is continuing. Deaths at the jail in Jessup are unusual. A suicide took place at the detention center in 1999.

"I wish we had the ability to forecast this stuff," Pereira said. "I feel we've done everything we're supposed to do in terms of preventing these kinds of issues."

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