DETROIT (WXYZ) - A surge of eight suicides in just over 13 months in Wayne County's jails dwarfs substantially larger facilities across the country, a 7 Action News investigation finds.
“That’s very, very, very high,” said Margo Schlanger, a professor at the University of Michigan law school and an expert in jail and prison reform. “That should be ringing alarm bells all over.”
The surge comes at a time when the county struggles to fill almost 200 deputy positions, jail facilities fall into further disrepair and plans for a new jail remain stalled.
“You don’t go to jail to get killed,” said Sallie Schultz, whose son Billy Adams took his own life this year while in jail for a probation violation. “You’re supposed to be safe in jail.”
Like most of the eight inmate suicides, Adams hanged himself inside a jail cell. He spent 10 days in a hospital, being kept alive by a ventilator before his family decided to take him off of life support.
“Billy was working so hard to clean himself up, and I was working so hard to help him,” Schultz said.
Most people inside jails, like Adams, are accused of crimes but have not yet had their cases adjudicated.
“Lots of people spend time in jail and prison,” said U-M's Margo Schlanger. "Those are not supposed to be death sentences.”
Schlanger points out that regardless of whether an inmate is guilty, jails are required by law to keep inmates safe while they’re in a county’s custody.
“We don’t sentence people to death by suicide,” she said. “We don’t watch them and give them the tools they need to kill themselves.”
Statistically, jail inmates are at a greater risk of suicide than the general population, but the numbers in Wayne County are off the charts. Since April of last year, the Macomb County jail reported one suicide. In Oakland County, there were none. But in Wayne County, eight inmates have died by suicide in just over a year.
“I think any loss of life is terrible,” said Wayne County Undersheriff Dan Pfannes, who said one suicide in the jail is far too many.
“I think if you look at the raw numbers, we do very well,” he said. “These people are people that have decided to take their own life. It’s unfortunate, but I’m just responding to that.”
Pfannes said the Wayne County jail houses “a different population” from inmates found in Oakland or Macomb County.
But we looked at two of the largest jails in the country that manage some of the most dangerous inmates. Cook County jail in Illinois and the New York City Department of Corrections both house dramatically more inmates than Wayne County, and both reported zero suicides during the same period Wayne County saw eight.
“It’s unacceptably large,” said Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny, who oversees a the jail though a consent order.
“The jails are constructed in such a way that it makes it difficult for sheriffs staff to be able to monitor inmates to make sure that they’re not harming others or harming themselves,” he said.
Just how closely did deputies monitor Donell Pryor? He was brought to the jail for a probation violation last year. While going through the jail registry, officers said he became “verbally aggressive and loud,” so they moved him to a cell by himself.
But as jail records show, deputies “did not take any items away” from Pryor, including his belt. While alone and unwatched in the private cell, he used the belt to hang himself.
Undersheriff Pfannes told us that after that incident, the jail required that all belts be removed before an inmate is brought through the jail registry.
But as we saw firsthand, deputies don’t always follow policy. While 7 Action News toured the jail registry for this story, we watched as an inmate that had already moved through jail registry still wore a belt around his waist.
We pointed it out to the undersheriff, who wouldn’t allow us to take a picture but did take the inmate’s belt.
Three of the inmates who died in Wayne County’s jails were receiving mental health treatment. At least one was supposed to be closely monitored: Sallie Schultz’s son Billy Adams.
Deputies took his clothes and gave him a suicide-proof gown made of paper, standard protocol for an inmate at risk of suicide.
“If I was responsible for putting someone in a paper gown...it would be most appropriate to take everything away from them that could be used,” Pfannes said.
“Including socks?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.
“Yes,” Pfannes said..
But for some reason, deputies didn’t take Adams’ socks and, while he was supposed to be watched more closely, he turned them into a noose and hung himself.
“He was on a mental health ward,” his mother said, through tears. “How did that happen? I mean, on a mental health ward, aren’t you supposed to have someone watching people that supposedly have mental problems?”
Regardless of an inmate's guilt, if the county fails to keep someone safe from harm—whether it’s self-inflicted or not—it can and does pay for it with your tax dollars. In just the last four years, four suicides cost the county $1,072,000 in settlements.
“A million dollars can pay for a lot of suicide resistant measures,” Schlanger said. “But I think more important than the money is the fact that we have people who are dead who didn’t have to be.”
In response to the surge in suicides, the county has purchased new cameras to better monitor some of the cells. It’s unclear how soon they’ll be installed or even how many will be used. But with the jail averaging a suicide every 57 days, they can’t come soon enough.
“Watch your kids,” said Sallie Schultz, who recently hired a lawyer to look into her son’s death. “You can’t watch them every day, but for God’s sake don’t let them go to the Wayne County jail. Because they’re not going to come out.”