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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

"Our jail is essentially another mental health facility," Joel Janssen, president of the Bexar County Deputy Sheriff's Association, the union representing jail guards, told the Current earlier this month, a symptom of the state's dismal funding of mental health care. "We're dealing with a different class of inmates than when I started 30 years ago, I can tell you that for sure."

Martha Rodriguez, head of Detention Health Care System, a wing of University Health System that provides health care inside the jail, echoed the sentiment, calling the jail "another state hospital, like a mini state hospital."

That can play a role in how many potentially suicidal inmates pass through the lockup, she said. In 2009, UHS' suicide prevention log showed inmates expressed suicidal thoughts 769 times, Rodriguez said. That number jumped to 1,071 in 2010. There were 1,038 entries to the suicide prevention log in 2011. As of this month, 2012 has seen 785 entries.

UHS did not answer specific questions regarding the suicide of Robert Rodriguez, or why he wasn't flagged for mental health or suicide precautions.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics sought in 2007 to track suicide in jails across the country. It found the rates were typically higher in jails holding 50 or fewer inmates, with a rate of 167 per 100,000. With less population, each suicide would pack a greater punch, statistically speaking.

But in the nation's largest jails (Bexar County was among the 20 largest jail jurisdictions for the study) the average suicide rate tended to be around 27 per 100,000 inmates. That means, statistically speaking, Bexar County shouldn't see more than one suicide a year. Bexar County was right at the national average for the period between 2000 through 2007, that report shows. While the jail had no suicides in 2008, by 2009 local inmates were taking their own lives in record numbers.

Included were two inmates whose families went on to sue the county. One, Jonathan Ramirez, was a 19-year-old epileptic transferred to county jail from a juvenile facility. After fighting constantly with guards and other inmates, Ramirez threatened to kill himself. But mental health professionals at the jail deemed he wasn't suicidal and returned Ramirez to his unit, where he eventually hung himself.

A judge last year dismissed the lawsuit, brought by Ramirez's father, because his parental rights were terminated in 2004. With the statute of limitations up, another family member couldn't re-file.

The family of Harlan McVea, who hung himself in his cell in 2009 while going through acute heroin withdrawal, also sued. But that lawsuit, along with two others against the county for wrongful deaths, was dropped this summer. All were represented by the law firm of Isabel De La Riva and Associates.

"Bexar county had been just incredibly uncooperative with everything. The parties had to weigh whether being involved with this for, potentially several years, was what they really wanted to do," said Chuck Goldman, a legal investigator with the lawfirm.

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