Jail Suicides – Searching for Answers

Roanoke City Jail Top 10 in U.S.

Jail Suicides – Searching for Answers

There’s an appalling sameness to articles about jail suicides – the victim’s families are always “seeking answers.” Actually receiving an answer to why their loved one supposedly killed themselves in jail is the exception.

In Roanoke, Virginia, five families want to find out not only why their loved ones died, but why the Roanoke City Jail (RCJ) has such a high suicide rate. What is going on at the RCJ, and what can be done to stop it?

Seven Inmates Dead in Four Years

Seven inmates have died while in custody at the RCJ since 2013, including five suicides. Six of the dead inmates were male, along with one female.

Those numbers include one suicide in 2014, two in 2015 and two – so far – this year. That’s a suicide rate of 162 per 100,000 local jail inmates, far more than the average of 50 per 100,000 suicides in local jails. That’s an increase from 2013, when the national jail suicide rate was 46 per 100,000.

The suicide rate for the United States as a whole is 19.5 per 100,000 people. The facility houses approximately 560 inmates at any given time, with about 10,000 held over the course of a year. All the inmates who committed suicide did so by hanging.

The RCJ has the dubious distinction of being among the top 10 jails in the country when it comes to inmate suicide.

While the numbers of inmate suicides at the RCJ are extraordinarily high, they are not the only such facility in the region with a greater than average suicide rate. In the past five years, the New River Valley Regional Jail, Dublin, VA, has experienced three suicides. That makes their suicide rate 71 per 100,000 inmates, considerably above the national average.

A De Facto Mental Health Facility

Jails and prisons across the country have become de facto mental health facilities, as there is no national public mental health system and many people do not have insurance to pay for mental health treatment when it is available.

In effect, jail administrators are running large-scale mental health facilities, and many have no formal training in this aspect of inmate life.

The Suicide Watch

RCJ officials say they are being proactive when it comes to potentially suicidal inmates. When an inmate is considered potentially suicidal, he is put on suicide watch and always monitored via camera. All belongings – and their clothes – are removed from the cell, and they are placed naked in a well-lit cell.

The only items permitted inside the suicide watch cell is a “suicide blanket” for warmth and a tear resistant “modesty smock.”  Such inmates are not permitted contact with friends or family. Emergency psychiatric services are supposedly made available. From January 1, 2016 to August 31, 2017, 316 inmates at the RCJ were placed on suicide watch.

Since four of the five inmates who died by hanging all used their bedsheets to end their lives, they were not on suicide watch at the time of their deaths, as bedsheets are not allowed in a suicide watch cell.  

Questions About the Sheriff as Suicide Rates Skyrocket

Sheriff Tim Allen has been in charge of the RCJ since his election in 2013. Prior to Allen’s administration, there was one in-custody inmate death at RCJ in the previous four years. Since Allen came on board, the number has skyrocketed. Families “seeking answers” want to know what has changed since Allen took the helm.  

On November 7, Allen was re-elected to another four-year term.

According to Allen, an average of 43 percent of inmates at the RCJ are receiving psychiatric medication. He notes the RCJ “is the city’s largest mental health service provider.” The RCJ is working with a mental health provider on starting new processes for screening inmates suffering from mental health issues.

A special suicide training program for staff has been expanded to three sessions annually. Allen said inmates receive a mental health screening upon booking, and are re-screened when the RCJ makes a jail housing determination. Guards are trained to watch for indications that an inmate is exhibiting suicidal behavior, such as giving away all their possessions. Allen said inmates are always able to request visits with mental health staff.

Family and Citizen Group Protests

The families of the dead inmates are indeed “seeking answers,” but they haven’t received many. In September, the Roanoke Peoples’ Power Network held a rally to protest the lack of answers and accountability by RCJ administrators.

The families of suicide victims Joshua Jones and Clifton Harper were on hand. Neither family has received official information about their sons’ deaths, and claim administrators will not return their phone calls. After the rally, the RCJ released a statement that said, “It is the constitutional right of an individual to peacefully protest any cause they feel necessary. The Roanoke City Jail continues to be sensitive to the family members and friends of the individuals impacted by these events.”

If you have lost a loved one due to in-custody, jail, or prison suicide and believe it could and should have been prevented, contact us to learn your legal rights. Our investigators are exceptional at discovering what really happened, our lawyers experienced at winning maximum compensation. Call Us at 866.836.4684 Or Connect Online for a confidential no-cost discussion.


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