Stopping Suicides Behind Bars

By Chris Barge
Rocky Mountain News
Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Jail administrators and deputies, shaken by four suicides inside the Jefferson County jail in 2005, took serious steps toward preventing more in 2006.

Thanks in part to their vigilance, only one inmate took his own life at the jail in Golden last year.

“We have literally changed 20 or 30 things we’re doing,” Jefferson County Detention Services Division Chief Dave Walcher said. “I know as a result of that we’re doing better, no doubt.”

Across the metro area, jails in 10 counties reported a total of five suicides behind bars in 2006, half as many as in 2005, which was the highest year on record, according to records provided to the Rocky Mountain News through the Colorado Open Records Act.

Jails in Arapahoe County and Denver reported two suicides each. All other counties reported zero.

“That’s good,” Walcher said. “Obviously, going from 10 around the metro area to five last year, that’s good. It’s still too much, though.”

Outside experts sought

During the past 11 years, metro jails have seen an average of 3.8 inmate suicides per year.

Last year’s suicide tallies do not include a combative man who died of “positional asphyxiation” in the Arapahoe County jail after deputies shot him with a Taser and tried to affix a spit guard to his face; a woman who died of internal injuries after wrecking her car and spending the night in the downtown Denver jail; and a man who died of a drug overdose in the Adams County jail. Those incidents raise their own questions about how deputies handle inmates who are under duress or in need of medical attention.

Besides the grief and loss to surviving family members, inmates who commit suicide leave behind a host of unanswered questions about their crimes and a feeling of justice short-circuited for victims.

Jefferson County jail administrators learned the hard way in 2005 that something serious needed to be done to prevent suicide. Prior to the four inmates who took their own lives that year, the jail had not seen a suicide since 1998 and never had experienced more than two in a year.

So last January, Walcher sent his detention services manager and counseling supervisor to Orange County, Calif. While Orange County’s population of nearly 3 million is about the size of the Denver area, just nine inmates have killed themselves in Orange County jails during the past 13 years.

Five times as many – 45 inmates – have taken their lives during the same period in metro- area jails.

Walcher also invited Lindsay Hayes, a project director at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, to come to Golden for four days to evaluate the county’s suicide prevention program.

Hayes recommended dozens of improvements, most of which Jeffco jail officials have implemented or are putting in place.

The jail has a new computer system that flags inmates who are or have been suicidal. Nearly 100 inmates in the jail are flagged at any moment, so deputies know to give them extra attention.

Suicide prevention training has been increased, and every deputy now must carry a laminated blue card that outlines “signs of depression,” “higher risk individuals,” “signs that a decision has been made,” and “times/signs of risk.”

Preventive steps

Two of the inmates who killed themselves at the Jeffco jail in 2005 did so with jail-issued tube socks.

All inmates now wear ankle-high socks.

The man who killed himself in 2006, Timothy Michael Radke, 34, tied one end of a bed sheet to his neck and the other end to a rod inside a shower, barely outside the supervising deputy’s line of sight. In response, jail crews have removed 96 metal shower curtain bars and are replacing them with Velcro, breakaway shower curtains.

Crews spent a month and about $25,000 repairing and grouting small gaps between windows and walls that have resulted from structural settling at the 20-year- old jail.

Those cracks no longer serve as potential tie-off points for makeshift nooses.

Inmates flagged as suicidal are now usually given a cellmate.

And most of the phones in the jail have been replaced by intercom models without cords.

“It’s probably too early to tell after a year,” Hayes said. “But I think that if, in fact, they have implemented the measures I suggested, they have done whatever they can. It won’t eliminate suicide, but it will certainly reduce the number of opportunities for inmates to commit suicide.”

Adding a layer of humanity

Deputies say that while the training and infrastructure have helped reduce the risk of suicide at the jail, they have also -helped add a layer of humanity to the relationships built between deputies and inmates.

“You have to treat them as if you were in their place,” said Deputy Lin Hale, who works closely with suicidal inmates. “The best thing you can do with a person who is suicidal is talk to them. If you can do that, you may save their life.”

In the downtown Denver jail last Jan. 18, several deputies forced a yelling inmate into a cell alone. Two hours later, they discovered James Barnes, 43, had hanged himself with a torn piece of clothing that he tied to a vent.

Another inmate, Jesus Maria Mendoza, 43, hanged himself at the Denver County Jail on Smith Road on Dec. 21. The Denver Sheriff’s Department declined to provide records on that case, which is still under investigation. Denver jail administrators are trying to improve their track record. When Bill Lovinger became Denver’s director of corrections last year, he immediately invited a jail consultant to help him improve the way the jail serves suicidal inmates.

On the consultant’s recommendation, he will soon hire two more mental health case managers. He has added more pointed questions about suicidal feelings to the inmate intake questionnaires. And crews at the jail have tried to make air vents more suicide-proof.

“Our position at the sheriff’s department is that all suicides are preventable,” he said. “Any time it happens, you have to look at whether there is something you can do better.”

Alone in a cell

The two suicides in Arapahoe County might have been prevented if deputies had checked up on the inmates more frequently, officials say.

Thomas John Silmser, 45, was left alone for more than five hours before he was discovered dead Sept. 8 in his Arapahoe County jail cell alone with a bed sheet tied to his neck and an air vent.

“We did identify that there were policy violations involved, and we have taken appropriate action,” said Bob Lauderdale, bureau chief of detentions and administrative services.

Michael Edward Lazarus, 54, was up all night throwing up and defecating into a cup. Deputies moved his complaining cellmate, cleaned up the cell and put Lazarus back in it, where he was left alone for more than two hours before he was found hanging by a sheet tied to the upper bunk.

Jail deputies in Arapahoe County undergo training for suicide prevention, Lauderdale said. Unlike in other area jails, there is no policy requiring deputies to check on inmates every hour during the day.

“I believe we have appropriate policies,” Lauderdale said.

Hayes said the cases in Denver and Arapahoe County show room for improvement. Specifically, he said, every inmate should be checked every hour at the very least. He said his recommendations apply to every jail, whether they have had a suicide lately or not. “There are a number of jails in Colorado that didn’t have any suicides last year, and there’s a false sense of confidence that can come with that,” Hayes said.

“There are suicidal inmates in jail every single day, and the challenge is to find them.”

Copyright 2007, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.