Howard targets inmate suicide

Cell alterations, more interviews by staff planned by county

December 28, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Howard County proposed yesterday to strip some of its jail cells of fixtures that could aide suicide attempts and plans more frequent interviews with Spanish-speaking and isolated inmates after two men hanged themselves at its detention center this year.

The bulk of the 13-page internal review focused on building a "Suicide Prevention Plan" out of existing practices. It also concluded, however, that the proposed changes would not have prevented the deaths of Dean Cumbie, 33, of Cooksville and Wilfredo Hernandez, 31, of Columbia, neither of whom was on suicide watch.

Lindsay M. Hayes, who has reviewed more than 1,500 cases of jail suicide as a consultant for state and local governments, praised the Jessup facility for its low suicide numbers - Cumbie was the first since 1999 - but also said the report read "like a self-serving press release," failing to own up to missteps or provide details about questionnaires and checks used to gauge an inmate's mental health.

The report also did not address the death of a third inmate, Joseph Edward McGee, 38, whose relatives have notified the county of their intention to sue.

McGee died of an acute lung infection in September, days after attempting suicide.

McGee had told the nurse treating his cut wrist at the jail that he had hurt himself so that guards would send him to the hospital, where he hoped to receive treatment for his severe chest pains, according to a police report.

Hayes noted that guards at the facility knew Hernandez was missing for at least 15 minutes before they entered his cell.

They found him hanging by a sheet attached to a vent on Aug. 1. Hernandez, who was being held on assault charges related to a fight, also had slashed his wrists using a razor that he had slipped past guards.

During those critical minutes, a supervisor and probationary officer completed checks in two other housing units, believing that Hernandez had been transferred to another section of the jail, a move that was scheduled for that day.

"That's just inexcusable," said Hayes, a project director at the Baltimore-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. "You should always know where your inmates are. And if you don't, you need to find them immediately and ensure they're alive."

Detention center director Melanie C. Pereira said the supervisor, called an "officer in charge," should have immediately entered the cell, but also defended her staff.

"The officer believed that the inmate was elsewhere," Pereira said. "No one relishes any of this, and I think my staff does an excellent job."

Pereira would not comment on whether any disciplinary action was taken against any jail personnel. Howard County police found no criminal wrongdoing in the three deaths.

Pereira called the actions recommended in the review, some of which have already been implemented, "enhancements," rather than "major changes."

The improvements include training all corrections officers to use defibrillators; adding a surveillance system to the medical unit, which would double the number of suicide-watch cells from two to four; and removing brass handles from upper bunks and cages from windows and sprinkler heads in some units.

Cumbie, who was wanted in Georgia on identity theft and drunken-driving charges, hanged himself April 1 with a bedsheet and black T-shirt attached to a sprinkler head cage.

Hayes said that the most significant change was assigning the jail's only officer fluent in Spanish to do weekly interviews with Hispanic inmates. Hernandez spoke little English. Inmates who are on "restricted status," often for medical or security reasons, also will be interviewed every two weeks, rather than once a month.

"Isolation is one of the key issues that contributes to suicides," Pereira said. "And how isolated can somebody be if they don't speak the language."

Several logbooks also are being combined so that guards searching for an inmate's history need to look at only one source.

These changes would have marked the end of any formal inquiries into the deaths had McGee's relatives not planned to sue. Pereira said that she could not comment on or include in the review any information about McGee because of the possible litigation.

James Crawford Jr., an attorney for the McGee family, said that he would seek to use police and medical records from Cumbie and Hernandez's deaths to establish a pattern of "lackadaisical and negligent medical services."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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