4 suicides in 5 months at Mich. county jails cause alarm
All three Wayne County jail facilities have been under judicial oversight for years because of deplorable conditions
By Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — Four inmates have committed suicide in the last five months in Wayne County's three jail facilities, all of which have been under judicial oversight for years because of deplorable conditions.
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny, who oversees a decades-old legal case about jail conditions, said the suicides "raised many flags." He told the Free Press on Wednesday that the number is "distressing."
Officials blame antiquated conditions that make it difficult to monitor inmates and create dangers for both inmates and staff.
The cases involve men ages 21, 24, 49 and 52 who were facing serious felonies, including murder or criminal sexual conduct. They killed themselves in separate incidents from April 20 through July 24, according to information from the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office.
The Free Press did not have statistics readily available on suicides in county jails, but an attorney with years of experience dealing with Wayne County jail conditions called it "unprecedented" and expressed shock.
"Any suicide is a tragedy and is unconscionable in my opinion, but to have multiple suicides, that's unprecedented with my experience in the jail that goes back decades," said Deborah Choly, a staff attorney with Michigan Legal Services, which filed a lawsuit in 1971 challenging the county's jail conditions. That suit has been the basis for an order mandating certain condition requirements and staffing levels at the jail. Kenny oversees that consent order.
One of the inmates who committed suicide was 24-year-old Paul Kendall, who was facing murder charges in the Easter Sunday killing of 3-year-old Aniaya Montgomery on Detroit's west side. Kendall "was found hanging by a sheet in the common area while in custody" on April 20, according to information supplied by Jackson.
The other cases involved criminal sexual conduct charges, including involving minors, according to Robert Dunlap, chief of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office. Kenny said he had been told of five suicides, but Dunlap said one of those had involved an overdose.
Dunlap said that the suicides happened in all three jail facilities. The information from the medical examiner's office indicated that all were by hanging, but Dunlap said one of the inmates had jumped from an upper level and landed on his head.
Dunlap said one of the inmates committed suicide shortly after a visit by a relative, who later indicated she was not surprised by what happened. Neither had indicated to jail staff that suicide was a possibility, he said.
"That's the shocking one for me," said Dunlap, who said he is currently in Colorado attending a jail networking event where prison mental health is among the topics being discussed.
Dunlap said the antiquated design of the jails and problems with technology, such as cameras, makes it a challenge to consistently monitor inmates, especially those who are determined to take their own lives. He said that officers had made their required rounds at the time of the suicides.
In an effort to prevent suicides, staff members are getting additional education about how to spot potentially suicidal individuals and the frequency of rounds is being increased, which also means additional overtime costs. Dunlap said there has been a request for additional technology, but he noted that because of the age of the jails, new items must be retrofitted.
Kenny addressed the suicide issue when he spoke to county commissioners Wednesday during a committee of the whole meeting at the Guardian Building in Detroit. The judge was addressing conditions at the jails in light of a proposal by the administration of County Executive Warren Evans to privatize jail medical services, which has proved controversial with many of the potentially affected employees.
The committee discussion related to the suicides touched on how mental health services are provided at the jails. Commissioner Burton Leland, D-Detroit, described the situation as "third world."
"I don't know how you can walk out of that environment and not get sick to your stomach," Leland said.
The conditions have made it difficult to retain medical staff, one of the reasons the administration has given for wanting to contract with Nashville-based Correct Care Solutions in a potential three-year, $59-million deal. CCS handles medical services in 38 jails across the country, including those in Macomb and Oakland counties.
No decision on the contract was made at the committee meeting, and another meeting is expected to happen next week. The administration has negotiated changes to the initial plan for the current county employees if they opt to stay, including boosting the retention bonus from $5,000 to $10,000.
The retention bonus for employees who stay is $5,000 after 60 days, $5,000 for one-year anniversary.
Kenny noted that as of Friday, there would be no full-time psychiatrist on staff and that the William Dickerson Detention Facility has no mental health social workers.
When asked by Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen, D-Detroit, whether there is a known correlation between mental health and the suicides, Kenny noted that suicides are often linked to mental illness. He said it "certainly shot my antenna up" when he heard that there had been so many.
Kenny noted that he is not advocating on behalf of the CCS contract just addressing the conditions in place for years and the services the county is constitutionally mandated to provide. He said the current jail medical staff does a "good job ... There's just not enough of them."
Choly said conditions have worsened notably in the past 10 years.
As of July, the county had almost 100 jail medical positions filled, which is about 25 short of the budgeted number.
Kenny also noted that with the closing of state psychiatric hospitals in past years that "it's embarrassing to say the single biggest mental health treatment facility in the state of Michigan is the Wayne County Jail."
He indicated that the jail consent order issues could go away if the county builds a new jail. The administration has indicated it is moving forward with plans to complete the unfinished jail on Gratiot in Detroit, where construction was halted more than three years ago. However, a team led by businessmen Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores have made a pitch to turn the unfinished jail site into a $1 billion home for a Major League Soccer team.