Suicides at jail hit nine-year high in '17; Superintendent says it's hard to forecast which inmates might take their own lives
Capital - 12/17/2017
Three inmates killed themselves in an Anne Arundel County jail this year, the highest number of suicides since 2008.
Macey Marie Machen, Sobhy Fariz Narouz Abdelmalak and Sean Paul Cassady took their own lives while being held this year at the Jennifer Road Detention Center, the county's maximum security intake and pretrial facility.
In 2008, when the jail last experienced three suicides in one year, detention center officials brought in a consultant to review jail policies, said superintendent Terry Kokolis. But this time is different, he said.
The three suicides happened under varying circumstances. Cassady, 29, hanged himself in February a day after arriving at the Jennifer Road facility near Annapolis. The door of his cell was open, and his cellmate found him after returning from a visitation.
Abdelmalak, 59, took his own life after a month in a single cell, where he stayed for his own protection. His charges related to the sexual abuse of a minor made him a potential target for violence.
Machen, who committed suicide in November, was under heightened surveillance in the medical facility at Jennifer Road. She'd talked to multiple people, including a social worker, during the day and exhibited no signs of mental distress, Kokolis said.
Police found no foul play in any of the three cases, said Lt. Ryan Frashure, a county police spokesman.
"Why somebody loses hope that their only solution is that, I'm not sure a consultant can come in and solve it," Kokolis said.
Machen arrived at the Jennifer Road facility after having seizures at the Ordnance Road Correctional Center in Glen Burnie, her family said. The Jennifer Road jail is equipped to house inmates with specific medical or behavioral needs.
She was undergoing a detox from methadone, said Denise Jones, Machen's mother, which she'd been on for at least five years. Jails are required to detox inmates with methadone addictions, Kokolis said, excluding pregnant women, as detox could harm the fetus.
"Each and every person that walks in the door" goes through an intake process and medical screening partially aimed at identifying potential risk factors and detecting mental health concerns, said Patricia Sollock, director of mental health services at the jail.
A nurse asks specific questions to ascertain the person's mental state, as well as takes observational notes on the person's expression, appearance, behavior and circumstance. At any point during an inmate's incarceration, a nurse, officer or any staff member can refer them to mental health services for potentially harmful or unusual behavior.
After a referral and mental health assessment, there are different options for housing including a mental health unit, an observation area in the medical unit or a step-down unit for those rehabilitating and working toward greater independence. Inmates who show signs of self-harm or suicidal tendencies are placed on "suicide precautions" in a high-visibility cell where officers check in at 15-minute intervals.
A suicidal person might be given a weighted, tear-resistant garment called a suicide vest or a similarly impervious suicide blanket.
Even then, with the best science and assessment available, it's hard to predict who will take their own life, Kokolis said.
"It's almost like using a template and the template could turn out to be inaccurate," he said. "You take the best information available and ... assume everyone will commit suicide."
At the Jennifer Road facility, there have been 350 calls for suicide evaluations between January and November. There were 230 people on suicide precaution between January and November. This year there were two attempted suicides, but it's the first year there has been a successful suicide since 2014. In 2014, there were 50 suicides for every 100,000 inmates in local jails, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Machen and Cassady both struggled with addiction, but neither they nor Abdelmalak were on suicide watch, Kokolis said.
It can be difficult to judge a person's mental state when someone doesn't want to disclose their mindset, Sollock said.
Kelly Hammen, Machen's sister-in-law, has also spent time at the Jennifer Road facility. She said there can be a disincentive to disclosing depression for fear of being put in the suicide vest in a high-visibility area.
There had been times she could've talked to somebody about her mental state, Hammen said, but didn't "for fear of embarrassment."
"It's just degrading," she said, "and you don't get any help."
Jennifer Road detention officers patrol cells and housing units and check on inmates with differing frequency based on their condition. It can range anywhere from once an hour to once every 15 minutes. A person can hang themselves in eight to 12 minutes on average, Kokolis said, and often there's nothing jail staff can do to prevent every incident.
The jail hangs posters encouraging the inmate population to report any signs of mental distress. The back of the inmate orientation booklet reads "YOU CAN SAVE A LIFE ..." and implores inmates to report either another person's or their own suicidal thoughts.
"We want people going out better than they came in," Kokolis said.
Still, families of the deceased are searching for answers.
Machen struggled with heroin use and addiction from a young age, her mother said, but was a funny, happy girl who could light up a room. Jones and her mother, Mary, think the detox from methadone contributed to Machen's eventual suicide. Machen wrote in a letter to her boyfriend, James Hammen, that she would kill herself if they stopped her methadone, they said.
Natalie DeVaughn, Cassady's sister, said her brother was "a helper" and a selfless person. Even throughout his addiction, "he didn't let the world get him down," she said. She questions how he could have hanged himself in his cell.
"Quite obviously this is not something that is supposed to happen," she said. "The ultimate goal is to protect the people from themselves and each other. ... Whether he would've done it outside, I cannot say, but he did it there. Someone has to take a little bit of responsibility."
Abdelmalak's lawyer, Tae Kim, said he was shocked to learn of his client's death and that he sensed no signs of distress in previous conversations.
Members of Abdelmalak's family could not be reached for comment.
Credit: By Danielle Ohl - firstname.lastname@example.org - twitter.com/dtohl
Caption: These suicide prevention posters hang throughout the detention center.
Terry Kokolis, superintendent of the Jennifer Road Detention Center, and Patricia Sollock, director of mental health services, speak about the facility's mental health procedures following three inmate suicides in 2017 at the jail.
photos by Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette