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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

"It would appear that the jail system has an unexplained tolerance for potentially suicidal behavior that has resulted in the under-utilization of the Suicide Prevention Unit, as well as other units, for the housing of suicidal inmates," Hayes wrote.

The most disturbing findings had to do with the jail failing to follow its own written procedures. According to policy, jailers aren't supposed to take away suicidal inmates' personal items unless the inmate is aggressive toward others or themselves. In practice, suicidal inmates were and are routinely stripped, put in "safety smocks," also called "pickle" suits, without undergarments, and confined in isolation cells for 24-hour stretches. That kind of confinement "only enhances isolation and is anti-therapeutic," Hayes wrote.

Maybe that's why those smocked inmates spent so little time on suicide watch — an average of 24 hours, "considerably less than this writer's experience in consulting with other correctional facilities throughout the country," Hayes wrote. He worried suicidal inmates could be lying about a change of attitude simply to get de-smocked.

Bexar County Jail Administrator Mark Thomas and Sheriff Ortiz, in an interview last week, both pointed to a new Special Observation Unit in the jail's basement to house suicidal inmates. It's an open bay environment with some 30 cots where inmates are in close proximity, all under constant staff supervision. But when the Current toured the unit last week, it was empty. Jail staff says it has yet to be used.

Detention staff wasn't getting annual suicide prevention training back when Hayes visited. Two years later, they're still not. On a two-year training cycle, Ortiz says officers take the suicide prevention course every other year. Officers are also set to take a prison rape elimination course next year, something that will include more suicide prevention training, Thomas said.

UHS says it implemented an annual, comprehensive 3-hour mandatory suicide prevention course for all its staff working in the jail.

Hayes also noted problems with the jail's booking area, saying stations used in booking to complete the mental health and suicide forms were "noisy and lack sufficient privacy to ask sensitive questions regarding a detainee's health care status." When Hayes observed the jail, one detention officer walked in and interrupted the mental health screening on one inmate so he could complete a form he didn't finish in booking. Thomas and UHS insisted staff has worked hard to make the booking and screening processes more private.

Numerous times during Hayes' observation nurses didn't ask about anxiety or mental problems, history of victimization, or other standard questions on the jail's form to screen for mental illness and suicidal behavior. In fact, two inmates who committed suicide in 2009 didn't even get psychiatric screenings, he found.

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