Jail/Prison suicides linked to untreated mental illness, sloppy paperwork

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By Andrew Scot Bolsinger

Following a stretch of nearly a dozen suicides in New York City jails over the past five years, an investigative story by the Associated Press discovered that safety protocols were not followed in at least nine of them.

Documents obtained by the AP show several tragedies that seemingly could have been prevented.

“In one case, a mentally ill New York City inmate hanged himself from a shower pipe on his third try in three days. During that stretch, orders to put him on 24-hour watch were apparently ignored, along with a screening form that said he was “thinking about killing himself.'” the AP reported.

Another inmate hanged himself with a bedsheet after a guard told him, “If you have the balls, go ahead and do it.”

In yet another case, an inmate hanged himself from a metal bed that he stood on end to create a scaffold, despite a year-old jailhouse directive to weld all beds to the floor, the AP reported.

“Is there a procedure? Yes. Did they follow it? Absolutely not,” said John Giannotta, whose 41-year-old son Gregory used a jail jumpsuit to hang himself from an improperly exposed bathroom pipe last year. The psychiatrist’s order to place Gregory Giannotta on suicide watch wasn’t entered into the computer system until hours after his death.

“What did he need? He needed his medication and follow-up care. He got nothing in jail,” his father said.

Communication breakdowns between mental health staff and guards, sloppy paperwork, inadequate mental health treatment and improper distribution of medication were frequently cited by investigators as factors in the deaths, according to the city and state documents obtained by the AP via public records requests.

Nine of the suicides took place at Rikers Island, the city’s massive intake center near LaGuardia Airport.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in jails nationally after illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, and New York City’s rate — 17 suicides per 100,000 inmates — is well below the average for the nation’s jails of 41 per 100,000, the AP reported.

It was not clear from the reports if any of the officers involved were disciplined.

Andrew Scot Bolsinger won more than two dozen press awards during his journalism career. He is a freelance writer, author and operates www.criminalu.co, which is focused on prison reform. He can reached at Andrew.Bolsinger@gmail.com and can be followed @CriminalUniv on Twitter.

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