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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

Up until 2009, suicides were rare at the Bexar County jail. More common were inmates dying from natural causes, like liver failure or complications from lung cancer. But during Ortiz's first year as sheriff, suicides at the facility shot to an all-time high — all of 2009's five in-custody deaths were suicides by hanging. Another inmate outsourced to a Crystal City jail because of intense overcrowding in Bexar County also took his life that year.

Management of the jail and public spats over the appropriate level of detention staffing between sheriff and county officials has grown to define Ortiz's re-election fight this year as he faces retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Pamerleau, who continues to hammer Ortiz for alleged mismanagement of the facility.

Ortiz has claimed the staffing crunch has forced detention officers to work overtime, even sometimes back-to-back eight-hour shifts. Bexar County Jail Administrator Mark Thomas says about 10 officers quit every month. At one point this summer, 14 left in less than two weeks. Ortiz insists that inmate suicide is a problem his staff has little control over, but allows that fatigue could play a role, saying, "It's a known fact that if an officer has to be in a cell block for 16 hours straight, he's not going to be as alert at the end of that shift."

Compared to other large jails, Bexar County's numbers stand out. Bexar County's jail population, the third largest in Texas at about 3,800 inmates, is dwarfed by the state's two largest jails, some 2,400 prisoners below Dallas County's jail population and over 5,000 inmates shy of Harris County's. But of Dallas County's 39 in-custody deaths since 2009, only four were suicide. Four of Harris County's 74 in-custody deaths during that period were suicide.

"There's no excuse," says Ana Yáñez-Correa with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which has worked closely with Bexar County commissioners, particularly Tommy Adkisson, to greatly reduce the local jail population in recent years. "Texans cycle through the local jails every year," she said, "and let's not forget many of these people haven't yet been convicted of anything. … What is the culture inside that jail? How is suicidal behavior being handled? I mean, even one suicide is way too many."

A study Bexar County commissioned in 2003 projected that by this year the jail would regularly house some 4,800 inmates and that the jail would need more space and more money. Necessity being the mother of invention, over the past three years county officials have begun to prioritize jail diversion over warehousing. While the average daily inmate population in Bexar County was 4,600 for June 2009, according to county figures, it dropped sharply in June 2010 to 4,100. In June 2011, population was down again at about 3,800. This past June, the jail saw lows of 3,500 inmates. The population as of September 1, 2012 was back up to 3,800.

This summer when the Texas House County Affairs Committee held a hearing to highlight issues facing county jails, Bexar County Judicial Services Director Mike Lozito testified to the local successes of pre-trial diversion keeping people out of lockup. But Lozito also noted a concerning trend. While the jail population had gone down overall, demand for mental health beds had shot up, he said. "Even though our jail population has gone down almost a thousand, our mental health beds are going up, they're increasing," he said. Officials began to notice that mentally ill inmates were cycling through the jail so frequently, it became apparent they were using the jail as their primary source for mental health care, Lozito said.

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