BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Safety procedures are being reviewed at the Rockingham County jail following two inmate suicides in two months, including the death of a Plaistow man Monday afternoon.
Jail Superintendent Stephen Church and county commissioners say the two deaths were tragic but difficult to prevent even though all necessary protocols were taken.
“It’s devastating,” Church said yesterday. “You do everything you can. ... It’s an unfortunate tragedy we have to deal with.”
The Plaistow inmate, whose name has not been released, hung himself in his cell using an “anti-suicide” blanket about 4:30 p.m. on Monday, only two days after being admitted, Church said. The first suicide occurred when an unidentified inmate hung himself in his cell in April, he said.
“It’s unusual to have two deaths in a two-month period,” Church said. “With something like this, the ripple effect is devastating.”
The last suicide at the jail was in September 2013.
The Plaistow inmate had been on suicide watch, which means his cell is checked by a correctional officer every 15 minutes, Church said. Other inmates are subject to 30-minute checks, he said.
Church said the 225-inmate facility exceeds federal jail standards by having two correctional officers for each of its five active cellblocks while most others around the country only have one officer per cellblock.
The inmate was released from the jail Friday after serving his sentence in another case.
He was then arrested Saturday in Plaistow on a driving while intoxicated charge and parole violation from the earlier case, Church said.
Details on that case were not available yesterday afternoon. The inmate, who battled substance abuse issues, was under close supervision. The Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office has been called in to investigate the death.
“He was on a suicide prevention watch,” Church said. “We were taking extra precautions. All suicide protocols were taken.”
Although there are dozens of surveillance cameras installed at jail common areas, it would be a violation of civil rights law to place them in inmates’ cells, according to Church and Thomas Tombarello of Sandown, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.
“Obviously, I’m concerned,” Tombarello said of the deaths. “The unfortunate thing is we can’t put in cameras.”
Commissioner Kevin St. James of Kingston said while the state’s opiate crisis is receiving a lot of attention, the suicides highlight the need for improved mental health services in New Hampshire.
“My concern is the mental health crisis that is affecting the state and the country,” St. James said.
“We did everything at Rockingham County (jail) that we could,” he added. “The problem is we have people who are locked up who need mental health counseling. The jail is not a setting to counsel people. We need hospital beds.”
St. James noted that the Plaistow inmate hung himself with an “anti-suicide” blanket designed to prevent it from being used to take one’s life.
While there is only one mental health counselor for the entire inmate population, St. James said a case manager is scheduled to begin work later this month.
Tombarello, St. James and fellow Commissioner Kevin Coyle of Derry said they believe Church and his staff did all they could to try to prevent the suicides.
“It’s unfortunate when we have young men at the facility (who commit suicide),” Tombarello said. “We are trying to help them and get them back out on the street.”
A 121-page study of the jail two years ago raised questions about management at the facility, but commissioners said Wednesday that Church and his staff are not to blame for what happened. Church said his staff was devastated.
“I think Steve Church is doing a phenomenal job over there,” St. James said. “They did everything they had to do. It’s a tragic case and we will take a look at all the protocols.”
Church said one positive development at the jail is the success of diversion programs has led to a large decrease in the inmate population in the last few years.
It allowed a sixth cellblock to be closed in 2015 after the jail population soared to about 350 inmates and prompted discussion of possible expansion only three years ago.
ABOUT INMATE SUICIDE
Here’s the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
4,446 inmates died in 2013, an increase of 131 deaths from 2012.
This was the highest number of deaths reported since 2007.
The number of illness-related deaths (such as heart disease or cancer) in local jails declined, the decrease was offset by an increase in unnatural causes of death, such as suicide, accident and homicide.
Every year since 2000, suicide was the leading cause of death in local jails, accounting for more than a third (34 percent) of all jail deaths in 2013.
The number of suicides in local jails increased from 300 in 2012 to 327 in 2013.
The suicide rate increased from 40 to 46 suicides per 100,000 local jail inmates during the year, and has increased 12 percent since 2009.
Most jails (80 percent) reported no deaths in 2013.
While the average mortality rate for male and female inmates was nearly equal from 2000 to 2013, the suicide mortality rate among male jail inmates (43 per 100,000) was 1.5 times the rate for female inmates (28 per 100,000).