Many US jails fail to stop inmate suicides

National News

Surveillance footage shows an inmate return repeatedly to a closet unlocked by a guard. On his next visit, he hangs himself.

Devin Lynch, a marine reservist,  died at the Cook County jail in 2016. His family sued the county, and in April received a $1.7 million settlement.

Lynch’s death highlights a disturbing trend.

Inmate suicides have become a growing problem in many u.s. Jails as more mentally ill and drug-addicted people land behind bars.

“this problem has never been as bad as it is today. jails across the country are being sued. people with mental illness are dying on an almost daily basis,” said John Snook, Treatment Advocacy Center, executive director.

Jail suicides hit a high of 50 deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014, the latest year of government data.

The Associated Press and the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service examined hundreds of lawsuits involving allegations of mistreatment and the suicide of mentally ill inmates at local jails over the past five years.

In case after case, jails are accused of refusing inmates medication, ignoring cries for help, imposing harsh conditions and failing to monitor inmates who might harm themselves.

“She had so much more to live for and so much more to do,” said Melany Zoumadakis, mother of Tanna Jo Fillmore.

Melany Zoumadakis’ daughter suffered from mental illness.

Tanna Jo Fillmore was arrested in November 2016 for violating probation in a drug case.

Her family says while in jail, she was denied her prescription medications, despite repeated pleas and threats of suicide.

On the ninth day, she hanged herself with a bed sheet.

The Duchesne County sheriff declined to discuss the case due to a pending lawsuit.

“I want to see change in these jails,” Zoumadakis said. “I don’t want any other parent to do this.”

In Dane Shikman’s case, a son lost his mother.

Elizabeth Gaunt, who had a history of mental illness and substance abuse, was acting erratically  when she was taken to the Lake County jail in Northern California in 2015.

The 56-year-old former social worker was placed in a sobering cell with a surveillance camera and she was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes.

“She begged multiple times over the course of hours for a medical doctor, for help. And no one in the jail had the humanity to step up or lift a finger to help her,” Dane Shikman, son of Elizabeth Gaunt.

After 25 hours, she tore a blanket into strips and took her own life.

The county settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $2 million.

“I don’t want to see anybody die on my watch whether it’s somebody that’s in custody, whether it’s a member of our community. Like I said, I take my obligation and my employees take their obligation to make sure that people come in here and they’re safe when they’re here,” said Brian Martin, Lake County sheriff.

After Gaunt’s death, the jail installed larger surveillance monitors; replaced blankets with tear-resistant ones; increased suicide prevention training for staff; and added a registered nurse among other reforms.

John Snook of the Treatment Advocacy Center applauds jailers for taking action. But calls it a band-aid on a gaping wound.

“So the reality, if you want to fix a jail. Build more hospital beds,” said John Snook, Treatment Advocacy Center, executive director.

With fewer psychiatric hospitals left in the country…

Any solutions come too late for parents like Melany Zoumadakis.

Terry Chea, Associated Press

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