News and Announcements

Feds probe suicides, use of force at Marion jail

By Naseem Miller
Published: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 3:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 7:48 p.m.

OCALA – The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the Marion County Jail to determine whether adequate suicide prevention measures are in place and how force is applied by corrections officers.

“We were surprised but not worried,” said Jimmy Pogue, the spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. “Simply because we’ve been so proactive in this area. [The investigation] is baffling.”

The investigation comes more than a year after Sheriff Ed Dean replaced the private company that was providing medical care for inmates at the jail, Prison Health Services (PHS), with the local non-profit system, Ocala Community Care.

At the time he replaced PHS in 2007, Dean said he believed Ocala Community Care could provide inmate medical services less expensively and more comprehensively. However, the move also came at a time when criticism was mounting that PHS denied basic medical care to inmates and deprived many of the medications they had been prescribed for physical and psychological ailments.

Three inmates committed suicide in the jail in 2007.

It is not clear what prompted the Department of Justice investigation or whether medical care at the jail is part of the investigation. But officials say it was not based on any single incident. It could have been based on a complaint from a number of sources, including inmates and their families, lawsuits, members of Congress or news articles.

Investigations of county jails is not common, said Lindsay Hayes, a project director at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a non-profit organization. The Department of Justice “can only investigate a certain number of jails each year,” Hayes said. “So they select those that they think allegedly have poor practices.”

The rate of suicides at the Marion County Jail over the past nine years is higher than the national jail suicide average, which is 38 suicides per 100,000 inmates, said Hayes, who has researched jail suicide prevention for nearly 30 years and advises jails on ways to reduce their rate of suicide.

Sheriff Ed Dean sought Hayes’ advice last March, after a spike in suicides in 2007. The jail has implemented most of his 25 recommendations, said Loretha Tolbert-Rich, medical liaison to the Marion County Jail.

Among those are staff trainings, a more comprehensive form to evaluate inmates at intake, and a step-down housing unit for inmates who come out of the suicide pods. The number of inmates on suicide watch ranges from 3 to 9 per day, according to Capt. Mike Forte, a watch commander at the jail. The average daily population of the jail currently hovers around 1,600.

“We take very seriously our obligation to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including inmates housed at the Marion County Jail and we intend to fully cooperate with the investigation,” Sheriff Ed Dean said in a statement on Tuesday.

The investigation process, which could take several months, will include a review of documents and procedures, interviews and an inspection. If investigators conclude that there are no violations, they will close the investigation. But if they decide that there are violations, they will provide “detailed, written findings and identify the minimum measures we believe necessary to remedy the violations,” according to the DOJ letter.

The letter adds that past experience has shown that collaboration of local officials has led to routine resolution of claims “without resort to contested litigation.”

“We are confident that this investigation will conclude that the Marion County Jail is operated within all mandatory standards to include the treatment, care, custody and control of the inmates,” the Sheriff’s Office news release stated on Tuesday.