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Suicide Watch

Suicides spur county jail re-examination

Infrequent inmate checks and low staffing levels may be contributing factors.

By M.S. Enkoji and Ralph Montaño -- Bee Staff Writers 
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Sunday, June 30, 2002The six men who committed an unprecedented string of suicides at the Sacramento County jail in the last 10 months -- five since January -- had more in common than dying with a makeshift noose around their necks.All were housed in a jail where the number of inmate beds has nearly doubled since its 1988 opening but where permanent jail staffing has barely budged. 

Half of the men had not been checked on by deputies for more than an hour, according to jail logs, despite a statewide standard of hourly checks.None was under any special psychiatric care or suicide watch at the time he died, even though most were troubled in some way: Several were withdrawing from drug and alcohol addictions, one had told deputies he planned to kill himself just hours before he did, and another had a history of mental problems documented in the county's own criminal records. 

And the combined heft of their deaths has had an impact, prompting a re-examination of deputy training and inmate screening methods while also triggering a flurry of suicide attempts and threats that are further straining jail staff.Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas, whose department runs the downtown jail, is the first to admit something's wrong."It surprised us all," he said of the suicides. "I mean, we're at epidemic proportions here. 

"He and jail supervisors contend they are doing all they can to prevent a No. 7, and that blame has been unfairly dumped at the doorstep of the high-rise jail, which had averaged one suicide a year in the last decade.Though the jail is expected to undergo major changes when the re-examination is complete, jail supervisors deny neglect played a role in the six suicides since September. They point to an overlooked figure: Deputies have saved five other inmates who tried to kill themselves this year.Critics, including attorneys preparing to sue the department on behalf of the dead men's families, are convinced jail conditions played a role. 

"It's the meanest jail (toward inmates) in California," said Paul Comisky, a Sacramento attorney who has sued 22 California jails on behalf of inmates.Comisky successfully sued to limit Sacramento's jail population in 1993, after inmates were forced to sleep on floors. Five years later, a federal judge turned on the green light for expansion.Room for 508 more inmates was created in 1998 by adding a second bed to some single cells, raising the jail's capacity about 28 percent, to more than 2,300. 

The size of the jail was not increased and, because state standards call for 35 square feet of open space per inmate, inmates now are only allowed into common areas in shifts. 

"The net result is the prisoners spend more time locked in their cells," Comisky said.Along with the new bunks, the department committed to boost the jail staff by about 15 percent -- 38 deputy positions. Yet since 1993, the number of deputies has only increased by five, from 254 to 259, state and jail records show.The department did increase its coverage in the mid-1990s, by switching jail deputies from regular full-time schedules to 12-hour shifts, four days a week.Counteracting that, labor representatives said there are now 40 vacant deputy positions, creating more pressure to work overtime. 

Jail supervisors acknowledged there are openings, but said they fill in with on-call deputies. But Jerry Moore, president of the deputies union, said that's true for only 17 of the 40 vacancies."The less staff you have, the less humanely you run the jail," Comisky charged.He cited one example: Inmates he has represented have told him they bought shampoo and tore up T-shirts to clean their own cells. 

Though some of the men who killed themselves left notes, none left clues about his time in custody. But other inmates related uneven experiences.Waiting for a ride after his release from jail earlier this month, 20-year-old Abraham Tili said that when he was brought in on armed robbery charges three months earlier, deputies warned him he would be punished for pushing a cell call buzzer for anything but a life-threatening situation. 

Some days, in fact, up to three days in a row, free time out of the cells was canceled, Tili said.Describing cell checks, he said, "You have to sit up and turn on the light and look out so they can see." But after 5 p.m., he said, deputies check more casually. 

"They don't do it every hour," he said. "I'm 100 percent on that."Suicide once killed the most jail inmates nationally. But the rate plummeted from 129 per 100,000 in 1983 to 54 per 100,000 in 1999, falling behind natural deaths, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Part of the drop is attributed to a greater emphasis on suicide prevention, including more frequent cell checks and closer monitoring by enough personnel trained in suicide prevention, said Ken Kerle, a consultant for the American Jails Association.But Blanas said more staff and monitoring won't necessarily prevent deaths. 

"We could have 100 deputies over there checking every half-hour, I can't guarantee something won't happen," he said.California laws governing jails don't dictate either staffing levels or frequency of cell checks. 

But the state Board of Corrections recommends hourly checks.In 1998 and again in 2001, board inspectors noted that Sacramento County's Main Jail had no written policy about hourly checks and that the logbook, where custody staff notes times of checks, showed gaps of more than an hour.Jail logbooks from the days of the suicides show such gaps in three of the six cases. 

The longest was for Jake Summers, who hadn't been checked for two hours and 18 minutes when he killed himself the afternoon of Feb. 8. Jon Frampton was found dead an hour and 50 minutes after his last cell check early Sept. 6. 

And for mass murderer Nikolay Soltys, who killed himself Feb. 13 after having previously jumped from a second-story tier, the gap was an hour and 20 minutes. 

Checks occurred within the hour before the other three were found dead -- Darrell Hite on Jan. 9; Mohammad Reeza Abdollahi on Feb. 27; and Julien Provencher on May 14.The jail's commander, Capt. Jim Cooper, said checks also happen informally at large jails, which he likened to 24-hour train stations with nonstop activity: meal service, medication rounds, cell changes, medical visits and the processing of dozens of new inmates every day.But the Board of Corrections field representative who last inspected the Sacramento jail said every jail must officially note that inmates are checked on once an hour. 

"The documentation must be there to support that," said representative Charlene Aboytes. 

The public defender who represented Soltys said the grand jury has questioned him on his concerns about jail supervision."I think what happened is the jail was negligent," said attorney Tommy Clinkenbeard of the suicide of Soltys, the Ukrainian immigrant who admitted he had killed six family members.A deputy found Soltys, 27, hanging in his camera-equipped cell on Feb. 13 at 7:10 a.m., an hour and 20 minutes after a deputy had picked up his untouched breakfast tray, according to the county coroner's investigation. He was "cold to the touch," the report said.Inmate suicides may not attract much public sympathy. But some argue that without a trial or at least a legal resolution, something always is lost -- perhaps a legal precedent would have been set or another victim would have come forward.s 

"You don't have the finality of an outcome in these cases, the certainty," said Ruth Jones, a former New York City prosecutor and a professor of criminal law at McGeorge School of Law.Plus there's always the presumption of innocence."The natural inference is to think that someone who killed themselves in jail is guilty," Jones said, "but that's not true. 

"There needs to be a day in court, even for the most horrifying crimes, agreed Clinkenbeard."Some people would have liked an explanation of what happened and why, what can we learn from this," he said of the Soltys case. "Now, we'll never be able to explore those theories. 

"Of the six who committed suicide, Soltys was the only one potentially facing the death penalty, arrest and court records show.Provencher, 47, homeless and plagued with mental problems spelled out in his criminal records, was jailed on loitering charges and an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor drunken driving; Summers, 23, a drug addict, was accused of stealing a tip jar from a food counter; Abdollahi, 51, a heroin addict, was arrested on drug charges; Frampton, 36, was charged with child molestation.Hite, 34, was an alcoholic arrested on suspicion of rape just 12 hours before he died. 

Even months after Hite's death, his brother, Brian, still puzzles over what happened, saying his brother had reasons to live. He had recently inherited $80,000, was working again and, Brian Hite said, enjoyed spending time with his 7-year-old son. 

The coroner's investigation gave the only clues: After his cellmate left for a visit, Darrell Hite ripped the hem of his bedsheet, circled it around his neck three times and strangled. His cellmate found him facedown on the floor, according to the jail logbook. 

"I'll never know whether he was guilty or not," Hite said as he sorted through family photos at his Oak Park home.Lee Frampton said his family burned every photograph of his brother Jon when they found out he had been charged with molesting a child. Yet Lee Frampton could not turn away completely. A few weeks after the arrest, he paid his brother a visit in jail. 

"I tried to give him some hope," he said. "I told him he wasn't going to have a home or family to come out to, but he was strong enough to start over."Now, he has had dreams in which he is a prison guard and finds his brother hanging in a cell, his face blue. 

"I'm not demanding justice or anything like that," Lee Frampton said. "I'm just looking for some sort of resolution and if there's any way this can be prevented in the future. 

"Provencher's father and Abdollahi's estranged wife are suing the county over the suicides. Their attorney, Stewart Katz, said he hopes the case will improve the screening done to determine if inmates need help. 

"It's certainly no shock to them these guys are on drugs," he said. "When someone is in on their seventh drug charge in the last 10 years, that's probably a good clue. 

"Every inmate is seen by a nurse on admission, and deputies are trained to watch their behavior afterward, jail managers said.At any time, if the jail staff determines an inmate is suicidal, they can move him to the jail's 18-bed psychiatric unit. There, inmates are clothed in safety suits and checked every 15 minutes. 

None of the men who committed suicide was in that unit at the time of his death. Soltys had been there more than once but continued to insist he was not suicidal.After the first few suicides, the department ordered special training sessions by psychiatric staff for 400 employees, including support staff and deputies who work at the courthouse. 

Yet even critics concede that training is not the only issue. Managing jails today is a juggling act among shrinking community and mental health resources and increasingly sick, mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates. 

"What a jail is doing is managing the homeless," said Comisky, the defense attorney. 

In hindsight, attorneys and families of most of the men who killed themselves say the men needed help.Abdollahi, a heroin addict with repeated arrests on drug charges, threatened to kill himself while going through withdrawal the evening of March 26, according to the jail's logbook. The log indicates he went to talk to medical staff, was given something to settle his stomach and help him sleep, and returned to his cell. Within hours, he was dead. 

Jail psychiatric staff members had seen Soltys and perhaps some others at some point in their incarceration, but would not comment on any of their cases, citing privacy laws. 

Judith Johnson, director of the 60-person psychiatric unit -- run by the University of California, Davis -- pointed out that in California the law limits treatment if inmates refuse it and appear capable of keeping themselves fed and clothed. 

"There's nothing you can do and it's frustrating," she said.Johnson said second-guessing about the six suicides has devastated her unit."I wouldn't be here 14 years if I didn't care," she said. "I know they're somebody's brother, husband or son." 

About the Writer 

The Bee's M.S. Enkoji can be reached at (916) 321-1106 or  menkoji@sacbee.com  . 

Abraham Tili says when he was jailed to start serving his sentence for armed robbery, deputies warned him that he would be punished for pushing a cell call buzzer for anything but a life-threatening situation. 

Sacramento Bee/Jay Mather 

"I'll never know whether he was guilty or not," Brian Hite says, still puzzled months after his brother Darrell Hite killed himself in jail. 

Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton 


69 steps to fight suicides at jail

By Robert D. Dávila -- Bee Staff Writer 
Published 2:15 a.m. PST 
Wednesday, February 26, 2003 

A rash of inmate suicides at the Sacramento County jail last year has resulted in beefed-up screening, training and other steps to prevent self-inflicted deaths, officials said Tuesday. 
A task force led by sheriff's and mental health officials presented the Board of Supervisors a list of 69 completed or planned steps to strengthen the jail's suicide prevention plan. Sheriff Lou Blanas assembled the group amid public concern over a record seven suicides at the main jail in 2002. 

"Many of these were in place already," Chief Deputy Dan Drummond said. "This list is a re-emphasizing, retraining and refinement of those procedures." 

Although no inmates have taken their lives since Aug. 1, officials said, 34 "self-harmful gestures" that did not result in death were recorded in 2002. Six more attempts have occurred since Jan. 1, including three that were "more serious" than the others this year, said Judy Johnson, who directs jail psychiatric services. 

The actions ranged from "someone scratching a wrist with his fingernails to making a noose with a sheet and putting it around the neck," Johnson said. Officials are working to improve how attempts are classified and reviewing the incidents to see if they could have been predicted and prevented, she added. 

The list of preventive measures covers nine areas of jail operations, including staff training, screening and monitoring inmates, building safety, management, and tracking attempted and successful suicides. Key steps include more hours of prevention courses for deputies and medical staff, checking all inmates for past suicide attempts or mental health problems, and increasing checks on psychiatric patients from hourly to every half-hour. 

Some of the steps were recommended by Lindsay Hayes, a national expert on preventing jail suicides who was hired by Blanas to study Sacramento County's problem. But others suggested by Hayes, assistant director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives at the U.S. Justice Department, were rejected because they were too expensive, officials said. 

One proposal that called for mental health workers to screen all inmates was rejected "because it would have required tripling the budget" at the jail, which receives 55,000 arrestees annually, Drummond said. Screenings by booking officers and nurses who see inmates regularly are more practical, he said. 

All of the inmates who killed themselves last year were men, and most died by hanging themselves -- but few other common factors have been uncovered, officials said. The most notorious case was multiple-murder suspect Nikolay Soltys, who killed himself Feb. 13, 2002, after a previous failed attempt jumping from an upper tier of the jail. 

Two lawsuits naming Sacramento County and Blanas as defendants have been in federal court in connection with the string of suicides. Attorneys for the plaintiffs have accused jail officials of ignoring signs of mental health problems in two inmates who killed themselves. 

The Bee's Robert D. Dávila can be reached at (916) 321-1077 or bdavila@sacbee.com

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