By Eva Ruth Moravec
San Antonio Ezpress-News
October 19, 2012
Fewer inmates in Bexar County Jail are committing suicide now than in 2009, when the number was three times the national average, but more prevention needs to be done, Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said Thursday.
“The inmate population that year spiked so much that we didn’t have enough room in our own jail,” said Ortiz, who took office the same year five inmates here and a sixth housed in Corpus Christi killed themselves. “Since then, there’s been a decrease in population in jails nationwide. We’ve only had two (suicides) this year, but that’s two too many. One is too many.”
Ortiz on Thursday touted changes he’s made at the jail, where the average annual population has dropped from 4,440 in 2009 to 3,675 this year. The changes came out of recommendations made by a national suicide prevention expert, Lindsay Hayes, who visited the jail in 2010 at Ortiz’s request.
“Some of his recommendations were not accomplishable immediately, but we’re still working on it,” he said. “Some things were too expensive, but we’re doing the best that we can.”
Hayes, a consultant with the National Institute of Corrections, reported that the jail’s policies and procedures regarding mentally ill and suicidal inmates were sound but not being followed.
Two inmates who committed suicide in 2009 weren’t properly screened in the booking area, Hayes found, and cells were filled with items that inmates could use to hang themselves.
Since then, anchoring devices have been removed from suicidal inmates’ cells, and the staff uses electronic screening forms that must be filled out properly. A 40-hour crisis intervention training course is mandatory for all officers, including cadets, and about 23 percent have taken it so far, he said.
Hayes also suggested the jail avoid keeping mentally ill inmates in isolation, which “not only escalates the inmate’s sense of alienation, but also further serves to remove the individual from proper staff supervision.”
Currently, staff from the Center for Health Care Services evaluate mentally ill and suicidal inmates and places them in several areas: in suicide-specific cells in general population pods; in the suicide prevention unit, an acute-care area; and in the mental health unit, also used for acute care.
After Hayes’ report, Ortiz began retrofitting units in the jail’s basement from low-risk areas to high-risk units that can hold mentally ill and medical inmates.
Work was completed in February, and two medical units are now in use. A third unit, for mental health inmates, may not be used until some policies and procedures are changed.
With room for 26 people, the new unit will house inmates who don’t need acute care but aren’t ready to be housed with the general population, Lt. Laura Balditt said. Guards will be able to constantly see inmates. Cords have been removed from telephones that will be used by inmates.
“We don’t have to seclude them anymore,” she said about mentally unstable inmates. “We had to reduce the number of bed capacity in here, but it could save a life.”
Ortiz, who’s running for re-election against Republican Susan Pamerleau in the Nov. 6 election, said another thing that has helped keep suicides down is to identify mentally ill or medical inmates and divert them to services such as Haven for Hope and University Hospital.
Ortiz’s opponent said she’d skimmed Hayes’ report but was unaware of how many officers receive crisis intervention training. She said the fact that officers hadn’t been following protocol was “a matter of setting standards, holding people accountable.”
“This isn’t just operating by the seat of your pants,” she said. “It’s important to plan and anticipate, to ensure you’re identifying at-risk individuals. That’s the role of a leader, to anticipate and plan.”
In June, Robert Rodriguez, 29, wedged a sharpened, plastic spoon into a shunt used for dialysis treatment and killed himself in an administrative segregation unit, officials said. The month before, capital murder suspect Corey Hiller, 36, was found hanging by a bedsheet in the jail’s medical infirmary unit the day before he was set to make his first pretrial court appearance.
Neither inmate was on suicide watch at the time of their deaths.