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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

"So much of what the county does, they do behind closed doors. And when people like this family come to ask questions about how this happened, why it happened, can it be prevented, they're stonewalled," De La Riva attorney Jesse Hernandez told the Current earlier this year. The county, he contends, hid behind a veil of privacy on each case, failing to give the families any information. "And it leaves them no choice but to come to folks like us and to file a lawsuit just to get the basic courtesies of finding out what happened to their loved ones," he said. "We don't know where the system failed these folks, and that's the problem. … We have to file a lawsuit just to find out what went wrong and how it could have been avoided."

Joe Anthony Lopez, 26, was the jail's first suicide of 2010, found hanging by a towel in his cell during a routine inspection just after 11 p.m. on February 23. Lopez had been in jail for over a year awaiting trial on arson charges. A month before his suicide, the jail passed its annual inspection with no deficiencies. But records from the jail show Lopez had been in off-and-on fights with other inmates throughout his time in lockup. One cellmate, he told a guard a year before his death, continued to beat and harass him. In May 2009, Lopez walked into an officers station with a bloody nose, saying he'd been beaten by two inmates in his unit. The next month guards were called out to Lopez's cell. They found him crouched on the floor as another inmate beat him. Lopez didn't fight back, one guard noted in his report.

In January 2010, a month before his death, Lopez complained again to staff that he feared for his safety. A review of the log books reveal a detention officer failed to do his last round of checks before leaving the night Lopez died — the sheriff's office later fired the guard for the infraction. When the relieving guard started his first round of Lopez's unit, he found the cell window covered with cardboard. After three knocks and no answer, he noticed a foul odor coming from inside. When the cell opened, the guard found Lopez slumped next to the sink, a towel wrapped around his neck. Lopez's death occurred just weeks before Sheriff Ortiz brought in outside help to evaluate the jail's suicide precautions.

Nationally recognized suicide prevention expert Lindsay Hayes delivered a blistering report to the county in April 2010, documenting a long list of failures on the part of both UHS and the sheriff's detention staff in recognizing at-risk inmates. He offered a long list of recommendations to reduce the risk of suicide — some but not all of those recommendations have been implemented. Since Hayes' visit eight more inmates have taken their lives at the jail.

Jail and medical staff had the proper screening tools, they just weren't using them, Hayes wrote at the time. He called the Suicide Prevention Unit at the jail a "misnomer," saying the 10-cell unit only occasionally housed inmates on suicide precautions, and that other than two detention officers and a medical staff, there were not any "appreciably enhanced services."

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