- Associated Press - Friday, June 27, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - In one case, a mentally ill New York City inmate hanged himself from a shower pipe on his third try in three days. During that stretch, orders to put him on 24-hour watch were apparently ignored, along with a screening form that said he was “thinking about killing himself.”

Another inmate hanged himself with a bedsheet from an air vent in a solitary-confinement cell after repeatedly telling guards he was suicidal. The last time he said so, one of them replied, “If you have the balls, go ahead and do it.”

In yet another case, an inmate hanged himself from a metal bed that he stood on end to create a scaffold, despite a year-old jailhouse directive to weld all beds to the floor. The directive was issued after another mentally ill man committed suicide in exactly the same way.

Investigative documents obtained by The Associated Press on the 11 suicides in New York City jails over the past five years show that in at least nine cases, safeguards designed to prevent inmates from harming themselves weren’t followed.

“Is there a procedure? Yes. Did they follow it? Absolutely not,” said a tearful John Giannotta, whose 41-year-old son Gregory used a jail jumpsuit to hang himself from an improperly exposed bathroom pipe last year even though he, too, was supposed to be on suicide watch. The psychiatrist’s order wasn’t entered into the computer system until hours after his death.

“What did he need? He needed his medication and follow-up care. He got nothing in jail.”

Communication breakdowns between mental health staff and guards, sloppy paperwork, inadequate mental health treatment and improper distribution of medication were frequently cited by investigators as factors in the deaths, according to the city and state documents obtained by the AP via public records requests.

It is not clear from the documents whether any employees were disciplined over the suicides, and officials did not immediately respond to questions about that.

Nine of the suicides took place at Rikers Island, the city’s huge jail complex near LaGuardia Airport.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in jails nationally after illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, and New York City’s rate - 17 suicides per 100,000 inmates - is well below the average for the nation’s jails of 41 per 100,000.

But the documents suggesting that most of the 11 suicides since 2009 could have been prevented raise new questions about the city’s ability to deal with a burgeoning population of mentally ill inmates.

The mentally ill account for about 40 percent of the roughly 11,500 men and women in New York City’s jails on any given day, up from 24 percent in 2007 - an increase attributed in part to the closing of large mental institutions over the past few decades in favor of community-based treatment.

Officials estimate a third of those inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Previous AP disclosures about the deaths of two other mentally ill inmates - one who essentially baked to death in a 101-degree cell in February and another who sexually mutilated himself last fall - have prompted oversight hearings and promises of reform.

On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the suicides “very troubling” and “an indication of what has been wrong for a long time at Rikers and what has to change.” He said that like many other jails and prisons across the country, New York City’s have become “a substitute for a real mental health system, and that’s unacceptable.”

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