The deaths of five prisoners in 18 months might pass without notice in a large jail system, but that many deaths at the 270-bed Portage County jail, located about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, raised red flags.

An investigation by the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed that Matthew P. DiBease, 29; Amanda Michael, 32; Kenneth R. Mantell, 26; Mark D. Shaver, 32; and Joshua D. McDaniel, 25, all Portage County jail prisoners, died during an 18-month period ending in mid-October 2011. DiBease, Michael and Mantell had all committed suicide by hanging.

Three suicides within 18 months at a 270-bed jail “far exceeds” the average for suicides in a facility that size, according to Lindsay Hayes, executive director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, which conducts research on suicides in custody. Hayes noted that such a high rate should have “set off alarms with the sheriff and jail administration.”

David W. Doak, Sheriff of Portage County since he was first elected in 2008, said that although his department had increased suicide prevention training for jailers, it is difficult to assess who is a suicide risk because prisoners aren’t always honest with medical staff who perform risk evaluations.

“When someone makes up their mind to hurt themselves, that’s a really difficult thing to deal with,” he stated.

Doak defended his reduction in jail staff against accusations that the staffing cuts created an unsafe environment at the facility, noting that budgetary considerations had forced the reductions. The Ohio Patrolman’s Benevolent Association argued against the cuts in 2010, but an arbitrator upheld the sheriff’s right to determine staffing levels at the jail.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that DiBease, who informed jail medical staff that he took medication for a bipolar disorder, hung himself with a sheet on October 29, 2011, less than a day after being booked into the facility for failing to appear at a court hearing.

Likewise, Michael hung herself with a bedsheet in November 2010. She reportedly was upset because her boyfriend had turned her in for using drugs while she was on probation. Similarly, Mantell, who told a jail nurse that he had previously attempted suicide and been treated for depression, hung himself with a sheet in May 2010.

Shaver, known to jail officials to be a heroin addict, was booked into the facility in November 2010. He began suffering from withdrawal symptoms, including diarrhea and vomiting. The medical staff merely gave him Pepto-Bismol as he became seriously dehydrated. A forensic expert hired by the medical examiner called Shaver’s death an “accidental homicide” caused by a burst brain aneurysm, while noting that a Taser shock Shaver had received when he was arrested plus his “medically unattended incarceration” contributed to his death.

Records indicated that, despite repeated requests, Shaver was never seen by a doctor at the jail. Worse, jail officials reportedly provided a version of Shaver’s medical records to the medical examiner that indicated jail staff was aware he was undergoing heroin withdrawal; however, another version of the same medical records provided by the county prosecutor’s office to the attorney representing Shaver’s family did not include that important fact. Denise Smith, chief of the prosecutor’s civil division, said the discrepancy was the result of a copying error.

Unsurprisingly, this led to claims of evidence tampering in a subsequent federal lawsuit filed by Shaver’s family, which remains pending. See: Shaver v. Brimfield Township, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 5:11-cv-00154-DDD.

The police chief of Brimfield Township, where Shaver was arrested, insisted that the Taser did not contribute to Shaver’s death. He said Shaver appeared normal after his arrest and then, paradoxically, suggested that Shaver’s two-mile run in an attempt to flee police might have caused a heart attack.

“I have been around a lot of Tasers,” said Police Chief David Oliver. “I have never seen a Taser kill a person.”

Of course, PLN has reported numerous cases of Taser-related deaths. [See, e.g., PLN, Jan. 2012, p.42; Oct. 2011, p.40; Aug. 2009, p.25]. Such incidents are especially likely when the person being shocked is elderly or in poor health. Regardless, Oliver persisted in his denial; after all, he hasn’t personally witnessed a Taser kill anyone.

“This is nonsense,” Oliver said. “The medical examiner has a history of pursuing Tasers as causing deaths.”

The Portage County jail didn’t even report McDaniel’s death until the Plain Dealer started investigating deaths at the facility. The jail’s medical staff was aware that McDaniel had a history of diabetes-induced seizures, and issued a memo that he should be given a lower bunk. Security staff ignored the memo and assigned him a top bunk. A fellow prisoner who knew of McDaniel’s medical history offered to swap beds so he wouldn’t be at risk of injury by falling from his top bunk during a seizure. The offer was refused. McDaniel subsequently had a seizure in May 2011, fell off the top bunk onto the concrete floor and suffered a fatal head injury.

The series of prisoner deaths at the Portage County jail indicates a repeated pattern of neglect and denial, and it is telling that it took an investigation by an out-of-town newspaper to bring this issue to light.

According to a January 27, 2012 news report, a state inspection of the Portage County jail found, among other problems, that guards had failed to make required cell checks during one of the suicides, and that the facility’s suicide prevention plan did not meet all the criteria required by the state. The inspection had been requested by Sheriff Doak, who said he had also ordered additional staff training and installed extra video cameras at the jail.

In October 2012, the insurance provider for Portage County agreed to pay $175,000 to settle a wrongful death suit filed by McDaniel’s family. The federal lawsuit named the county commissioners, Sheriff Doak, jail staff and Correctional Healthcare Companies (CHC), which provides medical care at the jail, as defendants. CHC entered into a separate confidential settlement agreement in February 2013 to resolve claims related to McDaniel’s death. See: Veith v. Portage County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 5:11-cv-02542-JRA.
Sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer, www.recordpub.com

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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