Jail suicide-prevention response being discussed, debated

Greg Harman

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In an emailed response to a list of questions from the Current, Jail Administrator Roger Dovalina said he is getting cost estimates to see what it would take to make the cells in the Suicide Prevention Unit and Mental Health Unit suicide resistant.

On an inspection of the jail earlier this year, nationally recognized suicide prevention expert Lindsey Hayes called the SPU's name a “misnomer” because of air vents and bunk beds that provide potential anchor points to which inmates could tie makeshift nooses.

Several of Hayes' recommendations will be put into practice this year, Dovalina said. For instance, jailers will receive annual suicide-prevention training every year and some detention staff will also be attending Crisis Intervention Training and learning skills that help officers calm those with mental illness who may be experiencing intense stress.

Representatives of the Sheriff's Office and University Health Systems, the county health program that provides health care services to the jail, are discussing the potential implementation of a “mental health shift report” to log all inmates who may be posing a risk to themselves. “I do believe that it is a good idea,” Chief Dovalina wrote the Current in an email, “but we need to find a method that will work for both UHS and the Sheriff's Office.”

A sticking point, however, involves one of Hayes' key criticisms of the jail â?? the consistent use of isolation and identifying smocks to mark and manage those placed under suicide watch. Regarding the smocks, Dovalina responded only: “This issue is still under review. We do have some concerns about this recommendation and are still reviewing the matter.”

Hayes said that confining a "suicidal inmate to their cell for 24 hours a day only enhances isolation and is anti-therapeutic. ... Under these conditions, it is also difficult, if not impossible, to accurately gauge the source of an inmate's suicidal ideation.”

Five inmates hung themselves at the Bexar County Jail last year, about three times the national average for county jails.

A follow-up call to Dovalina seeking clarification on some of his answers was not immediately returned.