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Pa. inmate suicides spark intensive watch program

3 hanged themselves at county jail

By Gabrielle Banks
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — The Allegheny County Jail warden said he plans to implement an intensive inmate watch program at the facility after three inmates committed suicide in five months.

David Gratter, 40, of Lawrenceville, hanged himself in his cell on pod 4B the evening of April 3. Jason Kindler, 28, of Sharpsburg, hanged himself -- possibly on the same intake pod as Mr. Gratter -- on Jan. 26. And John A. Simeone III, 36, of Highland Park, was also lodged on 4B, which is the detox cell block, when he hanged himself on Nov. 25; he died a few days later.

All three men killed themselves with shoelaces.

"It's wrong and it keeps happening. It blows my mind," said Kimberley Carroll, whose teenage children were fathered by Mr. Simeone.

"The way [his suicide attempt] was handled was negligent," she said. "You have all these corrections officers who are not checking on these guys. They're basically baby sitters, but they're not checking."

Warden Ramon Rustin was shaken enough by the recent suicides, the first at the jail in more than two years, that he began investigating what other facilities have done to prevent inmates from harming themselves.

He got approval from the county manager to begin a program, modeled after one at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility, to train inmates to walk the pods watching for fellow inmates in distress.

Guards at the Allegheny County Jail currently take classes in suicide prevention. Each guard also wears a special suicide hook to cut inmates down if they're found hanging.

During his 20 years at the jail, Maj. James Donis said he's seen inmates hang themselves with bedsheets, torn jail uniforms, mattress fabric and wet toilet paper woven into a rope. Inmates have also inflicted injuries on themselves with broken eyeglass frames.

Surveillance cameras don't show what's going on inside the cells, so guards are required to do cell checks every half-hour on the intake pods where the three recent suicides occurred. Inmates on these pods are considered at greater risk, especially those who are detoxing from drugs or alcohol, Maj. Donis said.

Elsewhere, guards circulate every hour.

Inmates who report they are suicidal are placed on the mental health unit, where they wear slippers and heavy robes that cannot be torn. Their cell doors are clear, so guards can see inside at all times.

Years ago the jail banned shoes with laces and issued slip-on tennis shoes. But Mr. Rustin said inmates began reporting a lot of ankle injuries suffered on the basketball courts. The jail then allowed inmates to borrow communal shoes, but they began complaining of foot infections. Then the jail began allowing inmates to bring in approved sneakers with laces.

Jail officials feel that banning laces isn't a suitable remedy for preventing suicides.

The Luzerne program, designed with guidance from jail suicide prevention expert Lindsay M. Hayes, hires and educates inmates to act as monitors, circulating through general population units about every 10 minutes during the day and nighttime hours inmates are in their cells, said Capt. Frank Handley, who works at the facility.

"They're an extra set of eyes and ears for us," Capt. Handley said. A monitor goes door to door "looking for deliberate self harm, and if he sees something is wrong, he brings it to our attention."

"A lot of times the inmates sort of confide in each other," he said.

Luzerne officials said there hasn't been a suicide at their facility in the past couple of years.

Mr. Rustin said he's begun soliciting recommendations for inmates to train with in-house mental health professionals for the Allegheny County inmate watch program, which he hoped might begin in the next two weeks.

Ms. Carroll said she hoped to meet with the families of the other two men who hanged themselves to see what the incidents had in common.

She called the county's new suicide prevention program "ridiculous."

"It's a little too late," she said. "I'm not saying these men aren't doing this of their own recognizance. But there's things leading up to it that [jail officials] should know about."

Copyright 2008 P.G. Publishing Co.

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