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Inmate Suicide Prompts Grand Jury to Call for Changes at County Jail

Panel says the man’s repeated medical requests and request for a new cell should have prompted closer scrutiny

A grand jury report published Thursday revealed details about an inmate suicide that occurred last summer in the Santa Barbara County Jail, and called for changes in procedures for incarcerated people who may be at risk of harming themselves.

A 29-year-old man was found dead in his cell in July 2011, with a plastic bag over his head, and appeared to have been dead for several hours by the time a deputy noticed, according to the report.

Although the man was housed in one of the jail’s 12 “safety cells” — isolation rooms used for inmates at risk for suicide — he was given a meal in a plastic bag, which he then used to asphyxiate himself. 

Inmates are also given a bag for their trash, but “there is no scheduled time for trash pickup and accountability of who is given a trash bag and if or when it is picked up,” the report stated.

The grand jury looked at the reports and logs provided by the Sheriff’s Department, interviewed custody staff and coroner personnel, and inspected the cell and the corridors where the death occurred.

Jail records show that deputies checked the cells 41 times during the day the inmate died, but the grand jurors found that the video monitoring system in the wing’s corridor didn’t record the incident, so they were unable to see if the custody officers actually looked in each cell and communicated with the inmates. 

Fourteen suicides have been attempted at the main jail from 2009 to 2011, with one death occurring in July 2011.

The man was discovered as a deputy was handing out dinner. The inmate was lying on his bed and did not respond or move when the deputy told him his meal had arrived.  The deputy could not see the inmate’s face or head because it was hidden by an alcove in the cell, but the report states that his left foot was resting on the floor and his arm hung free.

After peering through the meal slot in the cell door, the deputy was able to see that the inmate had a clear plastic bag over his head.

He called for help, and entered the cell, where he pulled the bag off the man’s head.

The inmate had wrapped a strip of vinyl fabric, ripped from the cell mattress cover, which was tied at the back of his head. Torn terry cloth was also inside the man’s mouth, and another piece of vinyl fabric had been tied to the cell door, which cause resistance when it was opened, the report stated.

Paramedics arrived and directed custody staff to stop lifesaving measures, and they determined that the man had been dead for several hours before he was discovered.

The man had been in an isolation cell for more than a month when the suicide occurred. Other inmates in nearby safety cells said the man had been complaining about pain for almost a week, but that medical staff said that nothing appeared wrong with him.

During the time he was in jail, the man had more than 26 sick call requests, and was seen.

“Several times during his four months in the main jail, he also requested to be moved to other cells saying he feared for his safety,” the report stated.

The man’s family said he may have been paranoid and was a hypochondriac, and had no emotional or mental health issues that they were aware of. Jail staff reported that the man had chronic anxiety issues, but the inmate refused mental health assistance.

The grand jury raised the point that the man’s repeated medical requests and request for a new cell may have been triggers that should have put him on suicide watch by custody staff.

As a result of the report, the Grand Jury recommended that the safety cells be checked more often, and that each inmate’s head and face be visible during the checks. The jury also called for a more accountability with the bags left for meals.  And it also called for mental health staff to monitor isolation cell inmate request for medical treatment as a possible trigger for suicide watch.

The Sheriff’s Department must respond to the report within 90 days.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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