After three suicides at the D.C. Jail in the past two months, union officials say corrections officers don't have the resources to provide appropriate mental health monitoring of inmates.
A 53-year-old man awaiting trial on sexual abuse charges was found hanging in his cell at the jail Monday, and his death is one in a series of incidents that union Chairman John Rosser believes could continue unless something is done to either increase capabilities at the jail or provide additional mental health services through other agencies.
Currently, Mr. Rosser said, corrections officers are being asked to observe and report signs that inmates pose a threat to themselves.
"The jails are simply not equipped to deal efficiently with both the security and the mental health aspect," Mr. Rosser said. "Now we're being asked to monitor, diagnose and recognize mental health issues. It just simply is too much."
Mike Johnson of Southwest D.C. used clothing to hang himself in the protective custody housing unit where he was assigned, jail spokeswoman Sylvia Lane said. He had been confined to the jail since December, and during that time officials had not documented any signs of mental health issues, she said. According to court documents, Mr. Johnson was accused of offering a woman a ride in his car and then raping her at gunpoint.
Union officials previously have complained about a lack of staffing at the jail, but Mr. Rosser said there did not appear to be any staffing shortage on the unit where Mr. Johnson was housed. Officials are still investigating Monday's death, but Ms. Lane said four corrections officers — a full complement — were on duty in the unit where Mr. Johnson died. Investigators are still reviewing what checks were made by officers on Mr. Johnson before he was discovered unresponsive, but Mr. Rosser said no correctional officers were found liable or faced discipline related to the other recent cases.
Paul Mannina, a Department of Labor lawyer, was found in the jail with his throat cut June 18. Mannina had a preliminary hearing in court hours earlier in a case in which he was accused of using a stun gun, mace and handcuffs to assault a woman in her home.
Walter Calloway, 42, of Southeast, was found hanging in his cell June 29, a day after he was committed on a felony charge of first-degree child sexual abuse, officials said.
Corrections officials in July announced they would enhance suicide prevention protocols after those incidents.
Among the expected changes, supervisors plan to provide additional intake reviews of inmates involved in high-profile cases it order to flag those who might not have "documented mental health disorders but require special handling," Ms. Lane said.
"Specific charges, such as sex crimes, are being assessed for additional risk factors by the suicide prevention task force," Ms. Lane said, referring to a group comprised of members who work at the jail, its health care provider and the Department of Mental Health that is working to evaluate current procedures. Specialists from the National Institute of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are expected to review the new protocols.
The three men who recently committed suicide at the jail were all charged in sex abuse-related crimes, a "disturbing coincidence" that can point to underlying mental health needs, said Deborah Golden, a lawyer working on the D.C. Prisoners Project with the Washington Lawyers' Committee.
Another man who committed suicide in November was facing charges from a stabbing and reportedly had prior documented mental health issues.
"It's entirely predictable that when people are in jail, they are in crisis," Ms. Golden said, adding that complaints she's received about medical and mental care at the jail have vastly decreased over the past decade.
Citywide, the District has increased spending on mental health treatment through other city agencies in recent years — spending $74.7 million on treatment and service to 22,930 mental health patients in fiscal 2012, a Gray administration spokesman said. That's an increase over the $50.4 million spent on treatment to about 16,500 patients in fiscal 2009.
But the union emphasized that corrections officers are foremost tasked with ensuring security at the jail, and that if city officials want more treatment focused there they will need to either provide support for officers inside the facility or allocate money for specialists.
"I'm more interested in keeping the guys from Simple City away from the guys from Ridge Road than I am watching the guy who is talking to himself," said Mr. Rosser, mentioning feuding D.C. neighborhoods. "If the jails are going to be the solution to dealing with mental health, then we've got to be given the resources to deal with it."
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