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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