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Google Alert – “jail suicide”

Changes suggested at Marion jail

By Joe Callahan, Staff writer

A panel that spearheaded an inquiry into operations at the Marion County Jail for the Department of Justice offered several suggestions that Sheriff Ed Dean will consider.

The key question that led the Justice Department officials to Ocala – whether jail staffers violated the constitutional rights of inmates in regards to suicide prevention efforts – will be addressed later in an official letter from the Justice Department.

"Lawyers with DOJ said we would have a prompt response" in that regard, Dean said.

The Justice Department became involved early this year after learning that three Marion County Jail inmates had committed suicide in 2007.

After a week-long inspection by two federal attorneys, a suicide prevention expert and a use-of-force expert, they revealed their findings to Dean and a community jail committee.

Overall, Justice Department staffers were complimentary of the jail operation, work farm and other aspects of day-to-day life behind bars, Dean said.

The Justice Department does not comment about ongoing investigations. Though the panel actually talked to sheriff’s officials, an official report will come later from the Justice Department.

The committee that inspected the jail made "best practices" suggestions:

Keys to numerous doors at the jail, which are kept on one large ring, need to be put on smaller rings so employees can find the correct one in a timely fashion in case of an emergency.

Video cameras should be installed in areas that do not have them as a deterrent to bad inmate behavior. Currently, some areas of the jail are not in range of cameras.

Though the inmate grievance reporting system is "very good and innovative," inmate request forms need to be more formalized to create a better tracking system.

A suicide expert recommended that the jail use a different assessment form when analyzing and screening inmates at risk of suicide.

"We are already reviewing those recommendations and will determine if any of those can be reasonably implemented," said Dean, adding that the jail examination went well.

Dean told Justice Department lawyers he’s planning to send a letter outlining what recommendations he looks to follow and a plan of action.

The Justice Department panel also was concerned about the use of four-point restraint, a procedure in which an unruly inmate is strapped to a hospital bed to protect him and jail staff.

The panel said the Sheriff’s Office should create a holding area to allow an inmate time to calm down before officers have to resort to restraints.

The panel also suggested that the jail record all required use-of-force incidents.

Marion sheriff’s Maj. Paul Laxton, who oversees the jail, said all four-point restraints and cell extractions are videotaped. Recording sudden use-of-force situations would be difficult because an officer may have to react immediately.

Roberta Stellman, a suicide expert hired by the Justice Department to focus on mental health care for inmates, also expressed concerns about the use of a hospital bed as a restraint.

She said when that tactic is used, more medical oversight may be needed, Dean said.

Stellman also told Dean and his staff that more intervention and tracking is needed for inmates with past mental health issues when they are booked into the jail.

Inmates, who had been treated for mental disorders at some point in their lives and who are not taking their medications, should always be referred for an evaluation. However, that had not been the practice, especially when someone, for example, was treated for depression 20 years ago and no longer requires medication.

Stellman also said mental health checks overall needed to come at the first signs of problems, such as when an inmate floods his cell, and should occur in a private setting.

Laxton said the Sheriff’s Office will run the mental health suggestions by The Centers’ staff to determine how to enact the procedures.

Dean’s chief of staff, Tom Wilder, said the Justice Department panel did not put a timeline on the suggestions. Some of them can only be implemented when funding is available, especially when it comes to video surveillance, he said.

"That would protect both the officer and the inmate," said Wilder, adding the Sheriff’s Office hopes to mail by Thursday a letter detailing a plan of action to the Justice Department. "But we can only do it when funding becomes available."

Before the Justice Department got involved, community concerns led Dean to remove Prison Health Services, which handled the jail’s inmate health care. Dean then created Ocala Community Care, which uses local health providers, including hospitals and The Centers.

In 2008, still prior to the Justice Department’s involvement, Dean hired Lindsay Hayes, a leading expert in jail suicide prevention. Hayes visited the Marion County Jail and made more than a dozen recommendations for the jail’s medical system and its handling of inmates.

Dean followed all of those recommendations, including the addition of suicide prevention workshops for the staff, modifying some of the suicide prevention screening forms and questions, making changes to suicide pods and increasing the number of qualified mental health staff.

Loretha Tolbert-Rich, the Sheriff’s Office medical liaison with Ocala Community Care, said following Hayes’ recommendations "absolutely" helped with the issues.

Hayes, who is respected and used as an expert by the Justice Department on occasion, said after a follow-up inspection this year the jail was ready for DOJ.

"What DOJ will see is that this is a county jail system that previously had a problem with identification and management of suicidal inmates and it no longer does," he said in May.

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