Unlucky Seven

Faced with an unprecedented rash of inmate suicides, St. Louis was slow to respond. Now there's a new jailhouse boss in town.

By then, it was far too late. Rigor mortis had set in, investigators reported; the medical examiner's office estimated Lloyd had been dead for approximately 90 minutes. Nonetheless, a jail nurse and a guard continued cardiopulmonary-resuscitation efforts until fire-department paramedics, who were called about the same time Lloyd was cut down, arrived at 8:50 a.m. After 11 minutes of trying, they realized they couldn't save him.

Robert House, the corrections officer assigned to make rounds, insisted that he'd checked the cell every 15 or 20 minutes in the two hours before Lloyd was found hanging, making his last check just 11 minutes before the suicide was discovered. Jail officials concluded that House was lying and had falsified records showing he had made mandatory security checks. Administrators tried to fire him, but he successfully appealed disciplinary action and is still employed as a correctional officer in the workhouse. The union retained a pathologist to dispute the medical examiner's opinion that Lloyd had been dead for more than an hour before he was found, and that made the difference at a civil-service hearing, says JoAnn Williams, business representative for Carpenters Local 795, the jailers' union. "We were sort of like the O.J. trial," she says. "We had dueling pathologists."

Williams dismisses any notion that Lloyd's death wasn't promptly discovered. "You explain to me, why would anyone perform CPR on someone in an advanced state of rigor mortis?" she asks. Jail policy, however, mandates that CPR be administered immediately and continued until the arrival of paramedics, regardless of the victim's condition.

JoAnn Williams: "I don't call it the workhouse anymore. I call it the crazy house."
Jennifer Silverberg
JoAnn Williams: "I don't call it the workhouse anymore. I call it the crazy house."
Frank Susman says he's not surprised by the problems uncovered by investigators: "It's shocking but not unusual."
Jennifer Silverberg
Frank Susman says he's not surprised by the problems uncovered by investigators: "It's shocking but not unusual."

There was more bad news when the toxicology report came back. "It was their autopsy report, and it said not even an aspirin was in his system," says Willis Lloyd, Lee's father. "Everyone knew he was supposed to be on medication. You'd think that even if people are locked up, they're supposed to be in a protected environment."

Loretta Lloyd says her son had complained for two weeks before his death that he wasn't getting his Depakote. Without the drug, Lloyd had trouble sleeping. The Lloyds believe their son would still be alive if guards had noticed his insomnia and gotten him medication and prompt psychological help. Loretta Lloyd also wonders whether her son would have killed himself if he'd been permitted to speak with her or visit the day before he died.

Before her son died, Loretta Lloyd says, jailers assured her that he was getting his drugs. "They lied," she says. In search of answers, the Lloyds met with Department of Public Safety officials shortly after their son's death. The parents walked away convinced that the workhouse staff hadn't done everything they could have to keep their son safe. "Something is wrong down there," Loretta Lloyd recalls telling one of the officials. "And he said, 'Yes, there is something wrong down here.'"

Lee Lloyd was the third workhouse inmate to hang himself in the span of four months. During the same period, an inmate hanged himself at the city jail, which was also run by the city's Department of Public Safety. The jail, which was located at 124 South 14th St., shut down in January 2000 to allow construction of a new facility on the same site, but the workhouse remains open. In the five months after Lloyd died, three more workhouse inmates hanged themselves, bringing the total to seven suicides in the city's corrections system in nine months.

By any measure, it's an off-the-charts suicide rate. By comparison, St. Louis County reported 10 jail suicides during all of the 1990s. National statistics are spotty, but a 1988 study funded by the National Institute of Corrections showed 107 suicides for every 100,000 inmates incarcerated in local jails, or slightly more than one suicide for every 1,000 inmates on an annual basis. More recently, a Corrections Compendium magazine survey of 86 jails with a combined average daily population of 68,781 inmates found that 27 inmates killed themselves in 1992 -- the highest number was at a Nevada lockup, which reported four suicides that year. On any given day, fewer than 2,000 inmates are confined in St. Louis Department of Public Safety detention facilities.

A review of investigative reports prepared by the city after each suicide shows that jailers kept making the same mistakes: Guards didn't know how to perform CPR. No tools were available with which to cut down hanging inmates. Inmates with mental problems had trouble getting psychotropic drugs and attention from psychologists or psychiatrists. And jailers were slow to call the fire department when inmates were found hanging.

The spate of suicides began on Oct. 4, 1999, when Tyrone McCullough hanged himself by tying a bedsheet to an air duct. Although an emergency physician questioned whether McCullough's injuries were consistent with suicide [Laura Higgins, "Case Closed," Dec. 15, 1999], police and the city medical examiner concluded otherwise. It seemed an isolated incident, the first suicide in the city workhouse for as far back as anyone could remember.

Then John Livacoli hanged himself with a sheet tied to a towel hook in his workhouse cell on Dec. 20, 1999. This time, the city called in investigators with the Missouri Department of Corrections. According to jail records, the state was summoned because several years had gone by without any suicides. Now, there had been two within three months.

« Previous Page
Next Page »