Amid scrutiny, a surge of suicides in L.A. County jails

The case of a 23-year-old with mental illness who hanged himself inside his cell is 'another example of how broken things are.'

He was a handsome lad, with dark eyes and olive skin. In family photo albums, his smile was luminous, and he often had an arm around his little brother. When he was just 11, he took the initiative to raise thousands of dollars for the distraught family of a slain police officer.

There was no indication that things would go so horribly wrong for him at age 23, when his brief life ended in an 8-by-11 cell at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. On Sept. 30, he became the ninth of 10 people to die by suicide so far this year while in the custody of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

"If you go back through the years, the numbers were more like four than 10, so there's definitely been a spike this year," said Michael Gennaco of L.A. County's Office of Independent Review. Gennaco said at least one of the deaths is the subject of an ongoing investigation to determine whether there was "failure to do security checks."

Suicide rates in jails and prisons are far higher than in the general population, and they're difficult to prevent. But the surge in L.A. County jail deaths comes during a time of intense scrutiny of the scandal-plagued, violence-prone department by federal investigators and the media, and despite reassurances from Sheriff Lee Baca that reforms are in place for the safety of inmates.

"Nobody has a good explanation, nor is there a sufficient level of prevention," said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is pushing for civilian oversight of the department. "It's another example of how broken things are."

In the case of the 23-year-old, his grieving family asked me to withhold their names for now. The family has retained an attorney and is considering a lawsuit in the hope that more suicides can be avoided.

"Having 10 people die in custody in one year, that's a lot," said the 23-year-old's father. "That's a whole lot, and I think changes need to occur."

The parents told me their son began showing signs of mental illness when he was 15 or 16, and his condition was diagnosed at various times as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. As the young man wrote this past September in a journal, he felt as though he was split into "two alternative personalities. It makes me wonder, am I really one of the two, both, or neither."

In July, his mother was driving him to the hospital because of his disorientation when he suddenly bolted from the car and ran into a store. When police came to try to calm him, he spit at them, resisted arrest and was taken to L.A. County Jail.

Ron Kaye, the family's attorney, said a judge had ordered that the young man be kept in custody until transfer could be arranged to a facility that treats mental illness and addiction. But as I've written before, such options are in shamefully short supply, and L.A. County jail is a de facto mental hospital. The family had gone to great lengths to set up that placement and was waiting for a bed at the treatment facility to become available. But the jail didn't cooperate with the plan, releasing him in the middle of the night without warning.

"My son called me on Aug. 26," says his mother. "He was being dumped on the streets … and could I please come pick him up."

In the days that followed, he was so disturbed, aggressive and erratic, she feared for his safety and called the police again.

Back to county jail he went. Alone in his cell at Men's Central, he fashioned a noose from his bedding and hanged himself.

"He should have been back on suicide watch instead of being put in a one-man cell," said the mother.

On a recent tour of Men's Central, I saw a cell in which an inmate had covered the windows with blankets so no one could peer inside. Deputies told me the inmate had mental issues, and when I suggested this could be a suicide waiting to happen, they said there had been one not long ago. They may well have been talking about the 23-year-old.

As I noted in an earlier column, the linear design of the 50-year-old jail makes it difficult for guards to keep an eye on inmates. The video surveillance system is useless for monitoring individual cells and preventing suicide.

Of the 10 suicides, seven occurred in Men's Central, one in a reception center, one in the women's facility in Lynwood, and one in a courtroom custody area. Most, if not all, were by hanging.

Gennaco said at least three of the victims had mental health problems. The vast majority of inmates identified as having mental issues are housed at the nearby Twin Towers facility, where the design is more conducive to observation and counseling. But mentally ill inmates sometimes spill into the general population at Men's Central because of overcrowding or because their illnesses aren't immediately apparent.

According to the jail's new commander, Terri McDonald, sheriff's officials have been discussing the spike in suicides and Baca has told her to "do everything you can to combat against it." McDonald said she's "looking at every aspect" of the problem, including where inmates are housed and monitored, and whether there are ways to improve evaluations from Department of Mental Health staffers stationed in jails.

Baca couldn't explain the increase but told me suicides in jail are "my biggest worry…any loss of life is tragic."

Yes, especially when a 23-year-old with serious mental illness is left despairing and alone, but for the frightening company of his demons.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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