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Cover Story

Why have jail suicides soared under Sheriff Ortiz's watch?

Photo: Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Chuck Kerr

Photo: , License: N/A

Inmates that have taken their lives at the jail under Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz's watch: Robert Rodriguez (above), Adrian Rodriguez (below)

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Robert Rodriguez's behavior grew increasingly erratic his final days in lockup this summer. Arrested days before on misdemeanor drug and trespass charges, Rodriguez, 29, began to fear inmates and guards in his unit were out to hurt him. "[Floor sergeant] believes the inmate is mental," noted one detention guard's report. In the middle of the night, Rodriguez would wake up in a panic screaming, "Go ahead and kick my ass, get it over with."

Although he was detoxing off Klonopin — a prescription drug used to treat both seizure and panic disorders — when he entered the jail, Rodriguez was more than once cleared by jail mental health staff and sent to general population, according to facility records. But detention officers had their reservations. "Inmate seems to be mental and has a hard time grasping his situation of being in jail," one guard wrote.

Requesting protective custody, Rodriguez wrote on June 23, 2012, that he suffered major anxiety, problems with "mind and body," and that he wasn't getting his regular doses of Xanax, another prescription drug used to treat panic disorders. Three days later jail officials approved his transfer, but he became combative when they asked him to trade his orange jumpsuit for the red one worn by protective custody inmates. The red jumpsuit meant a transfer to state prison, he insisted. An emergency response team was called in to subdue Rodriguez and force him into protective-custody reds.

The next morning, staff took Rodriguez to the jail's infirmary for his regular dialysis treatment. Rodriguez broke down. In the middle of his treatment, he ripped the two needles from his arm. "I need help," he cried. "I really fucked up this time. There's no help for me."

As he wandered back to his cell, Rodriguez continued to cry. "I need help. The past is haunting me."

A half hour later in his cell Rodriguez stabbed a plastic spoon into his dialysis shunt and bled to death.

Rodriguez is just the latest in a stream of suicides that have plagued the Bexar County Adult Detention Center since 2009, the year Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz took office and assumed control of the jail, county government's single largest expenditure. During that time 14 out of 25 of the facility's in-custody deaths, well over half, have been from inmate suicide. Many of those who took their own lives were awaiting trial on charges ranging from minor misdemeanors, such as Rodriguez, to murder.

Despite his bizarre behavior, Rodriguez was never placed on suicide watch. Documents obtained from the county through open records requests over the past year document the suicides of detainees who asked for help, who threatened suicide to other inmates in their units, or who pleaded for physical protection from guards and other inmates.

So far in 2012, two jail inmates have taken their own lives, a sign, Ortiz insists, that changes made under his watch are starting to work.

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