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.

"We are being more concerned with those mental problems associated with suicide, such as signs of anxiety, signs of depression," Petty says. "All of these things are being looked for in ways that might not have been looked for or were not prioritized prior to the rash of suicides." Petty isn't quite sure when the changes were made. "I would say that all of the practices went into effect sometime after the second suicide," he says. "I think we were putting things in place continuously."

That's not how Williams sees it. She says efforts to train guards in suicide prevention and response didn't start until September of last year, when guards picketed the workhouse to call attention to working conditions they believed were unsafe. By then, seven inmates had killed themselves. "There was no suicide-prevention policy at the time we picketed," she says. "Now, I can't say it wasn't developed and sitting on someone's desk, but it had not been distributed to correctional officers. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out something was wrong. The whole place is crazy. I don't call it the workhouse anymore. I just call it the crazy house." Noting that the workhouse population swelled when inmates from the now-closed city jail were transferred there, she says the lockup is understaffed to the point that prevention policies get short shrift. "They're too busy putting out fires to engage in preventive measures," she says.

Estimating that about 25 percent of the city's inmates have some kind of mental-health problem, Petty says there's no way of knowing whether any of the deaths could have been averted had new suicide-prevention and response measures been instituted earlier. He won't discuss cases such as Lloyd's and Reeves', in which inmates with documented mental-health problems were placed alone in cells with the means to commit suicide. "The main thing, I think, we have to realize is, with respect to all the suicides, there was no indication of problems with the inmates," he says.

Jennifer Silverberg
Guards on break at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, 7600 Hall St.
Jennifer Silverberg
Guards on break at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, 7600 Hall St.

Three days after Petty spoke with the Riverfront Times, the city hired a new commissioner to oversee the its corrections system. The former commissioner, Alice Pollard-Buckingham, was demoted to detention superintendent.

Dora Schriro's first day as corrections commissioner came with an unpleasant surprise. When she arrived at her City Hall office on Oct. 22, there was a brand-new suicide report on her desk. This time, the dead workhouse inmate was Bryan Williams, 30, who was facing charges of rape, sodomy and kidnapping and three counts of armed criminal action. He was found in the early morning hours the previous day. So far, jail administrators aren't releasing much other information, except to say he died of asphyxiation.

JoAnn Williams says the inmate somehow managed to choke himself to death in his cell by tying a torn sheet or some other material around his neck and wrists. He may have been dead for more than an hour before he was found, she says, because guards were not present in the housing area -- they'd been sent elsewhere in the workhouse to supervise other prisoners. Inmate suicide monitors in the unit were no help because they were locked in their cells while guards were absent, she adds. Schriro, however, says round sheets show that Williams was checked at 1:38 a.m., just 15 minutes before the suicide was discovered.

Bryan Williams' death "was the very first thing I learned of when I walked in the door," Schriro says. "Obviously it's commanded a lot of my attention in the past week." A 4-inch-thick stack of model suicide policies and reports on the previous deaths sits on her desk. She spends her first weekend as commissioner reading through the documents, first scrutinizing investigative reports on the seven previous deaths, then comparing St. Louis' suicide prevention and response policy to national standards developed by the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. The workhouse suicide policy was updated in July 2000 after the city consulted with the state and the National Institute of Corrections, but, in light of Williams' death, Schriro plans to take yet another look. "I want to double back," she says.

By Monday, Schriro has found room for improvement. Eight days after Williams killed himself, she orders that all inmates returning from court be screened to determine whether they're suicidal. The goal is to identify inmates who may become suicidal in reaction to adverse court proceedings. Previously, inmates were formally screened only at initial booking. "We're doing a re-intake each time they come back from court," Schriro says. In addition, jailers last week began updating suicide-watch lists at least every eight hours to ensure that supervisors have the latest information on inmates deemed suicide risks. More changes are likely, Schriro adds.

Schriro has plenty of experience running jails and prisons. She was the workhouse superintendent from 1989-93, leaving that job to become director of the state Department of Corrections. Gov. Bob Holden replaced her in May, five months after he took office. Since then, she's been a finalist to head state prison systems in Idaho and Texas. If she's disappointed she didn't get those jobs, she doesn't show it. "I tell you, there's no place like home," she says. "I really love this work." Her experience shows during a recent visit to the workhouse. Just four days into her new job, inmates and staff alike call out greetings as she walks the corridors. "Ms. Schriro, come on in and visit us," hollers one inmate from a dayroom enclosed in steel bars. The familiarity is a function of Schriro's years spent in corrections and the frequency of her visits to the workhouse during her first days on the job. "It's pretty unusual, a commissioner here three times in one week," she says.

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