Investigation continues into jail suicide
by Madasyn Czebiniak
mczebiniak@annistonstar.com
Feb 24, 2014 | 8191 views |  0 comments | 89 89 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Inmates have their handcuffs removed inside the new cell block of the jail at the Sollohub Justice Center in downtown Anniston last year. Officers were transferring the inmates from the old city jail. Photo by Trent Penny.
Inmates have their handcuffs removed inside the new cell block of the jail at the Sollohub Justice Center in downtown Anniston last year. Officers were transferring the inmates from the old city jail. Photo by Trent Penny.
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Anniston police Monday were still investigating an inmate’s apparent suicide in the Anniston City Jail on Friday morning, a rare occurrence that jail officials statewide say is difficult to prevent.

Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown pronounced Jeffrey Russell, 52, of Alexandria, dead in his cell that morning. The cause of death was suicide by hanging, Brown has said, and no foul play is suspected.

Anniston police Chief Shane Denham declined to comment Monday on the pending investigation.

“We don’t talk about internal investigations until we have a full picture,” he said.

City Manager Brian Johnson’s secretary said by phone Monday that Johnson also declined to comment on the pending investigation.

Law enforcement officials say that even though jails and prisons have protocols and procedures to prevent suicides, inmates still find ways to end their lives. According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, suicide was one of the two leading causes of death in local jails and state prisons throughout the country in 2011. From 2000 to 2011, suicide accounted for an annual average of 41 deaths per 100,000 inmates; 15 inmates in Alabama died as a result of suicide from 2000 to 2011.

Lt. Jon Garlick, the mental health officer with the Calhoun County Jail, said that before inmates at that facility are jailed, staff ask, sometimes with questionnaires, whether they have suicidal tendencies. Those who do are held in isolation from other prisoners. Jail staff keep constant watch on those who say they’ve developed such thoughts during their incarceration, the lieutenant said.

During suicide watch inmates are held in isolation cells or in the jail’s booking area, Garlick said. Such inmates are dressed in what’s known as a “suicide dress,” a blanket closed with velcro, and corrections officers check on them every 15 minutes.

According to Denham, officers who work in the Anniston City Jail have had suicide prevention training.

Even with those measures, somebody who really wants to kill himself will find a way, said Chad Mumpower, president of the Alabama Jail Association, a professional organization for jail workers. Inmates can hang themselves with sheets, blankets and even telephone cords, he said.

“The only way you could prevent it is to have someone sit and watch all the prisoners all night in a chair and never leave the jail cell, and that’s just not feasible,” he said. “If somebody’s really got their mind set on doing it, there’s really no way that a jail can stop it.”

Court records show that Russell was sentenced to two years in prison after he pleaded guilty to two charges of negotiating a worthless negotiable instrument, the legal term for writing a bad check, in 2011. He was released from jail under the condition he make $2,000 monthly payments on restitution fees and court costs, which stood at $30,757.48 by March 2013, according to court documents. Documents indicate that he hadn’t paid since December 2012, and prosecutors in Covington County asked a judge to reinstate Russell’s sentence in March 2013.

According to court records, Russell violated his probation when he did not make payments.

Efforts to reach Covington County District Judge Frank McGuire, who handed down Russell’s sentence, were unsuccessful Monday.

Mumpower said financial distress can be a serious trigger when it comes to these types of incidents.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2000 to 2011, 1,672 inmates who had been in jails for seven or fewer days died as a result of suicide. Mumpower said most jail suicides occur with the first 24 hours of an inmate’s arrest; Russell had been in the city jail since Thursday afternoon.

Mumpower said investigators could review video footage of the jail and any phone calls Russell made during his incarceration. They could also look into Russell’s behavior during and after his booking, he said.

“I guess that they’d really need to talk to the officer that actually put him in jail, see how that conversation went,” Mumpower said. “What kind of questions were asked?”

Staff writer Madasyn Czebiniak: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @MCzebiniak_Star.

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