Inmate suicide prevention is in focus

Despite reforms, four prisoners die in 18 months

October 01, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Less than a year after Howard County proposed measures to prevent suicides in its jail, the county is investigating the third inmate hanging and fourth death in 18 months.

County Executive James N. Robey said that he would not know whether further action is needed until county police complete their investigation and determine whether protocol was followed. But he said he is satisfied that almost all of the reforms proposed last year have been implemented.

"There is lots I know and could tell you, but it would be inappropriate until the police complete their investigation and it's reviewed by the Office of Law," Robey said of Tuesday's death of Vaughn Hairston, 24, who suffered from bipolar disorder.

The county has been cautious in releasing information about this case.

Relatives of inmate Joseph Edward McGee, 38, who died of an acute lung infection at the jail in September 2005, have notified the county of their intention to sue, but have not done so. The family's attorney told the Sun in December that he would attempt to show a pattern of "lackadaisical and negligent medical services" at the jail.

Since then, Melanie C. Pereira, the detection center director, said that brass handles have been removed from bunk beds and cages from sprinkler heads, items to which inmates could affix ropes or bed sheets. Corrections officers also are being trained in the use of defibrillators.

In addition, the jail's only Spanish-speaking officer is conducting weekly interviews with Hispanic inmates. And "restricted" inmates, who are often placed on that status because of behavioral problems and violence, are being interviewed every two weeks, rather than once a month, Pereira said.

Many of these changes were aimed at reducing inmates' isolation, a key risk factor for suicides, Pereira has said.

Robey said yesterday that Hairston, who apparently hanged himself with a bedsheet, was segregated from other inmates at the time of his death and that corrections officers were required to check on him every 30 minutes.

Hairston's mother, Flora Hairston, said this week that her son was segregated from other inmates "most of the time he was in the facility." She said she had asked permission to send her son a Bible, books or "anything to keep him busy" while alone in his cell, she said.

"He was set up for disaster," she said.

According to his mother, Hairston voluntarily took himself off his bipolar medication because it made him lethargic and vulnerable to attacks, including from inmates who she said once filled a sock with batteries and beat him with it.

Court documents show one instance in which an inmate alleged that Hairston's erratic behavior provoked a fight.

According to a request for assault charges against Hairston, fellow inmate Robert More said that while in the jail's common area Aug. 10, Hairston wanted to change the channel on the television from a football game to Smallville, a teen science-fiction drama.

After allowing the switch during a commercial, the group asked Hairston to return to the football game. He refused.

When inmates protested, Hairston punched Donald Jones twice in the face, and when More stepped in to "defuse the situation," Hairston punched him several times, knocking out two of his teeth, according to the application for charges.

Hairston was being held at the detention center on a $150,000 bond on charges of second-degree rape and assault, according to court documents. He was scheduled to appear in Howard County Circuit Court on Oct. 3.

At the time of Hairston's death, Pereira said two reforms - part of a suicide prevention plan she proposed in December - had not been implemented. Security cameras had not been installed in the detention center's medical unit.

She also had wanted to remove cages from windows but could not do so everywhere for security reasons.

It is unclear whether either effort could have prevented Hairston's apparent suicide. On Friday, a police spokeswoman had not been able to learn from what object Hairston was hanged, and county officials also have not released what unit he was in before his death.

Sun reporter Tyrone Richardson contributed to this article.

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