In June, construction was completed on two new cells, each designed to hold only one person at a time, in the Clay County Jail.
One of the cells, outfitted with a toilet and some other “comforts,” is designed to hold inmates awaiting mental evaluations for up to 72 hours, Sheriff Eddie Scott said.
The other, with only a mattress and a blanket thicker than the typical bed sheet, is located directly across from the jailer’s booth and equipped with cameras so that it can be monitored 24/7, both by the jailers in the booth across from the cell and by Scott’s administrative assistant in her office. It’s specifically designed for jail employees to keep an eye on an inmate who friends, family, other inmates or jail personnel feel may be in danger of dying by suicide.
The additional cell to the jail came just two months before the issue of suicides in detention facilities came to national attention when millionaire Jeffrey Epstein died by apparent suicide in New York over the weekend. Epstein, who was facing federal charges for sex trafficking and abuse of minors, had been taken off suicide watch only 11 days earlier, according to national media reports.
“I wish we didn’t have to deal with it at all,” said Lowndes County Adult Detention Center administrator Capt. Ryan Rickert, who has also been involved in suicide awareness outside his professional capacity by helping organize charity runs and raise money for Contact Helpline in Columbus.
He said he and his staff undergo periodic training on awareness and prevention of suicide.
It’s a problem Scott fears is increasing.
“It’s really hard on the jails, but we’re just incurring more and more of it over the years, and we’re just having to deal with it best we can,” he said. “It’s just like me adding in two cells this year. There was just a need for it.”
A national problem
According to a national study by Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2015, inmate suicides in local and state jails may be on the rise. Nationally, from 2012 to 2013, inmate deaths at local jails increased only 1 percent, from 958 deaths to 967 deaths. But inmate suicides increased 9 percent, from 300 to 327, over that same time period. 2013 marked the highest it had been in more than 10 years, compared to 289 such deaths in 2000.
“I have had numerous people say anecdotally that they believe there is an upswing among suicides … nationally,” said Maria Morris, an Alabama attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center who specializes in cases involving prisons.
She said there’s not much data and that what there is tends to be several years behind. However, she knows Alabama had nine suicides in 2018, which in a prison system of only 20,000 makes the state’s inmate suicide rate 45 out of 100,000 — about three times the national average. Mississippi’s rates, she said, are considerably lower, though she didn’t have exact numbers.
Morris said it’s common for jails to have what she called “safe cells,” such as the cell just built in Clay County, which don’t come equipped with anything that can be used for self-harm, like razor blades or other materials that can be used for rope — such as thin bed sheets.
She added it’s “critically important” for correctional officers to be checking on inmates on suicide watch, so they can both talk to them and see what the inmate is doing — something that apparently did not happen in Epstein’s case.
“They need to be going through and checking on them and making sure they’re OK,” Morris said.
“Cameras are a useful additional tool, but they should never be substituted for a person sitting outside the door,” she later added. “… If they’re watching them from too far away and they see a person hanging up a noose, what can they do? And can they get there in time?”
Once doctors or jailers determine the inmate can go off suicide watch, jailers need to follow up with those inmates later, Morris said.
At county jails in Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties, administrators have put in place policies which specify inmates on suicide watch go into such a cell and are monitored or checked on periodically — every 15 minutes at Lowndes County and every 10 minutes at the Oktibbeha County Jail — and kept there until a health professional approves their release or the inmate stops exhibiting behavior that led jailers to activate suicide protocol in the first place.
But for that protocol to be in place, jailers have to know when an inmate is in danger of harming themselves. At LCADC, where there were three inmate suicides between November 2017 and March 2019, Rickert said jailers have to be more aware of inmates’ behaviors at certain times, such as right after they’ve been sentenced in court.
In the last of the apparent suicides, which occurred in March, the inmate had just been sentenced to spend 10 years in Mississippi Department of Corrections. That kind of blow, Rickert said, can make an inmate consider taking their own life.
He also said because so many of the inmates have been arrested multiple times, jailers often know them and already have a rapport with them, which can help jailers determine whether their behavior is in character or not. Certain behavioral changes — such as an inmate not eating or refusing to come out of their cell and engage with other inmates — are sometimes red flags, he said.
Similar policies are in place at Oktibbeha County Jail.
“Even if they just said, ‘I’d rather be dead than be in jail,’ that’s enough for them to be put on suicide watch,” Chief Deputy Chadd Garnett said. “When we feel like they are not going to (we take them off suicide watch) and the staff would watch them.”
Even if the inmate doesn’t say anything, family or other inmates can raise concerns, Sheriff Steve Gladney said.
“We just watch their behavior, and sometimes you hear that from other inmates that you might need to watch this guy,” he said. “A lot of times when you bring them in they look kind of depressed and show signs of depression and things like that.”
Scott said whether the policies are implemented at Clay County Jail depend on whether the inmate has a history of suicide attempts or whether a doctor has recommended the patient go on suicide watch. But like Gladney, he said even when other inmates are concerned about one person, the jail may activate its suicide protocol on those concerns alone.
“Each case is different,” Scott said.
At Lowndes and Oktibbeha county jails, inmates on suicide watch wear paper gowns — or, in the case of Lowndes, a suit that Rickert described as “malicious mischief proof” which is made of thick material that inmates can’t tear.
“Hopefully we pray that it never ends up with an Epstein-type thing where (the process) malfunctions,” Garnett said.
‘People are put in prison and they’re forgotten about’
While Scott stressed he didn’t want anyone to die, he pointed out that inmates dying in custody can also hurt the victims of the inmate’s crime.
“You want everybody to have their day in court for sure, and definitely for the victims too because they want closure to it,” he said. “That’s what our job is, is try to keep them safe and healthy to have them ready for when the judge calls for them to come to court. … We don’t want any deaths in the jail whether it’s suicide or homicide or even natural death.”
Morris said while she hopes Epstein’s death brings attention to the national issue of inmate suicide — and jailers either not knowing how or not trying to prevent it — she wishes the issue had been discussed and solved before Epstein died, when hundreds of other inmates were dying per year in the United States.
“This is a thing that is happening in prisons a lot,” she said. “People are put into prison and they’re forgotten about. … Nobody is writing about them because they’re not millionaires.”
Dispatch reporter Mary Pollitz contributed to this report.
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