Heroin bust at jail a distraction from blistering suicide review

Greg Harman

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Given the number of deaths that have occurred inside Bexar County Jail in the past couple years related to heroin withdrawal (See here and here and here for at least three examples), it's tempting to root for the sheriff's deputy arrested this morning on suspicion of trying to deliver narcotics to detainees on the inside.

While we'd never outright root for the pushers of the world, it sure would be nice to empty our jails of all these non-violent offenders and save our hard-earned tax money for bankrupting corporate devils like BP in our underutilized federal courts. And yet the news of the hour deserves mention before we begin unpacking our tangled rant.

Here goes...

Sheriff's Deputy Robert Falcon (right), 48, was arrested in a sting operation this morning involving marked bills and “simulated” drugs and charged with possession with intent to distribute. Those one-to-four grams of artificial tar could result in up to 20 years imprisonment â?? one for each year Falcon's been serving and protecting.

While titillating, the whole ordeal is distracting from the Big Issue in Bexar County. That is: a scalding assessment of the jail administration's failures to follow procedures intended to reduce inmate suicides.

Nationally recognized suicide-prevention expert Lindsey Hayes delivered his report to Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz back on April 8. It was provided to the Current this week under an Open Records request.

Hayes opens his report by crediting the jail staff for taking the proactive approach of contacting him after a rash of suicides began to build at the facility in 2009. Ultimately, six inmates in the jail system, one of whom had been outsourced to Crystal City because of intense overcrowding, hung themselves in a 10-month period last year, about three times the national average for county lock-ups.

Hayes then documents a long list of failures on the part of the administration (and University Health Systems, which provides mental-health professionals and medical staff at the jail) in recognizing at-risk inmates and preventing needless deaths.

For starters, Hayes calls the Suicide Prevention Unit “a misnomer.”

“The 10-cell unit only occasionally houses inmates on suicide precautions (e.g., only two inmates were on suicide precautions during the time of this writer's visit) and, other than the posting of two detention officers and a medical staff, there were not any appreciably enhanced services,” Hayes writes. “It would appear that the jail system has an unexplained tolerance for potentially suicidal behavior that has resulted in under-utilization of the Suicide Prevention Unit, as well as other units, for the housing of suicidal inmates.”

And, yet, the most disturbing findings have to do with the jail failing to follow its own written procedures on prevention. For instance, jailers are not supposed to take away suicidal inmates' personal items unless that inmate is aggressive toward others or themselves. Even then, jailers are supposed to get approval from the shift commander before removing an inmate from general population, after which continuous observation is called for.

In practice, however, suicidal inmates are stripped, put in “safety smocks,” otherwise called “pickle” suits with not undergarments, and confined in isolation for 24-hour stretches. “Confining a suicidal inmate to their cell for 24 hours a day only enhances isolation and is anti-therapeutic,” Hayes writes. “Under these conditions, it is also difficult, if not impossible, to accurately gauge the source of an inmate's suicidal ideation.”

This would also explain why those who have been smocked work to get “unsmocked” as quickly as possible. The average length of stay in pickle-suited isolation is 24 hours, Hayes wrote, “considerably less than this writer's experience in consulting with other correctional facilities throughout the country.” Um, yeah, we'd want out of the iron mask ASAP, too.

But an even more obvious problem in immediate need of correction? Air vents and metal bunks in both the SPU and medical unit available for inmates to hook sheets and towels to, enabling suicide to occur within the very units designated to prevent them. Is there a "duh" in oversight?

Jail Administrator Roger Dovalina refused an interview with the Current today, asking instead that all questions be submitted in writing. According to the jail's press officer, those answers won't be returned until next week.

So, party on, San Anto! And if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself being processed this weekend, you may want to request a mental-health screening if you're feeling like sinking back into a pre-womb existence. Apparently, jail staff forgot those frequently too.

We really wouldn't want anything to happen to one of our favorite readers.

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