The number of inmate suicides in state prisons climbed by more than 30 percent during a one-year period, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the Department of Justice. The statistical study, Mortality in State Prisons, 2001-2014, released on Dec. 15, noted that in 2013, 192 state prison…

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A North Carolina prisoner with a history of mental illness who was found dead in a transport van after being transferred to another prison died due to dehydration, according to the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office.

However, the state pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Michael Anthony Kerr, 54, said records provided by the Department of Public Safety were so scanty and incomplete that she was unable to determine whether his death was accidental, a suicide or a homicide.

Prison records indicate that Kerr was held in solitary confinement for 35 days prior to his death and had spent the last five days of his life handcuffed and largely unresponsive. Prison officials repeatedly turned off the water to his cell because he had flooded it, and put him on a diet of milk and nutraloaf. The milk was later ordered withheld.

“They treated him like a dog,” said Kerr’s sister, Brenda Liles.

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By Matt Clarke

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 real 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.

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