Victoria County Jail takes steps to stop suicide by inmates
May 6, 2012 at 12:06 a.m.
At a time when suicides are the leading cause of death in county jails, Texas jails are following tougher standards to bring down those numbers.
Authorities agree the application of the state's suicide prevention program at the Victoria County Jail helps keep the number of suicides and inmate uprisings to a minimum.
Of the five deaths in the county jail since the Texas Commission on Jail Standards began regulating them in 2009, two were suicides. The other three were listed as natural causes.
Texas once led the nation in jail suicides, but a state suicide prevention program has helped the state shake that stigma.
The statewide rate dropped from 31 in 1986 to 17 in 1994, according to an article by Graham Baker in Texas County Magazine.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported 19 county jail inmate suicides last year.
The most recent suicide in the Victoria jail was in April when federal inmate Marcus Duprey Washington was found hanging in his cell.
In February 2011, a La Marque man used a string from his sweater to hang himself in a jail cell.
The investigation into Washington's death concluded his death was not because of an oversight by jail personnel, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards
Adan Munoz, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said the county jail is in compliance with all regulations.
"In this particular case, once the paperwork was asked for and received, everything seems to have been done properly," Munoz said.
Washington, 40, who hanged himself in the jail on April 7, was not in a situation where he needed direct supervision, said Chief Deputy Terry Simons.
While he left a suicide note, he had not demonstrated suicidal tendencies either in his behavior or communications, Simons said.
"In the last couple of days he had been talking to people and going to rec," said jail administrator Lt. Kellye Stillwell.
Procedures are in place for officers that will help them determine if an inmate is suicidal.
Upon arrival at the jail, inmates are asked a series of questions and observed for signs of suicidal tendencies during the booking process.
Parts of the jailers' 96 hours of training teaches them to identify suicidal tendencies and how to de-escalate situations in which an inmate wants to harm himself or others, Simons said.
More than half the jailers are also licensed deputies, Simons said, which means they have gone through peace officer training, bringing their total hours of training close to 1,000.
All jail personnel are authorized to put someone on suicide watch if they think the inmate demonstrates a likelihood of endangering themselves or another person, Stillwell said.
But only a doctor is authorized to take them off the watch.
An inmate who has been placed on suicide watch is clothed in a paper smock instead of cloth jail clothing and, Simons said, they are observed on a more frequent basis.
Officers also check to see if the inmates have been receiving care for mental health issues.
Both the police department and the jail work side by side with Gulf Bend Center in caring for people with mental health issues, said David Way, associate executive director of Gulf Bend Center.
"We have a solid and ongoing relationship with the sheriff's office. We offer them tele-video psychiatry and crisis assessment using a high-quality secure webcam system," Way said. "We provide assessments, but in terms of going in and providing actual medical services, we do not do that."
"Prior to the continuity of care, it would take many days to know whether they were receiving treatment for mental health disorders," Stillwell said. "Sometimes, an inmate has been off their meds and needs to be stabilized."
The entire facility is monitored by video camera, so the suicides can be thoroughly investigated, he said.
"It's a safeguard for both our officers and our inmates," Simons said.
Many of the successful jail suicides are impulsive, he pointed out. However, if the number of suicides becomes inordinate, the state will review the larger picture, including the assaults on officers and the living conditions in the jail.
In addition to the video cameras, the policy at the Victoria County Jail is to exceed the required face-to-face observation schedule required by state regulation, Simons said.
"This keeps our escapes to a minimum and the inmates don't have time to do anything without officer observation," he said.