Despite safeguards, preventing jail suicides remains a challenge

Aug 30, 2019

Monroe County Jail
Credit James Brown WXXI

County, state and independent officials are among those investigating the suicide of a man inside Monroe County Jail on Thursday. It's the second suicide in the jail this summer.

Capt. James McGowen has been with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office for about 25 years, the last four as one of the leaders of the jail on South Plymouth Avenue. He said it’s standard procedure to thoroughly investigate cases of suicide and acknowledged that rates of self-harm are higher in county jails than prisons.

“In a county jail, you don’t know if you’re being convicted or not,” said McGowen. “Everything is brand-new, everything just happened, there’s a lot going on. In prison, you pretty much know what’s coming, you’ve been found guilty of something a while ago, and now you’re finally going to prison.

McGowen said that’s one reason why the jail takes extensive steps to prevent suicides. He said the most critical time is in the first 72 hours. That’s when deputies, staff, and mental health professionals ask inmates about their emotional state, medications, and family history of mental illness. McGowen said the process continues formally and informally throughout their incarceration.

“But when you’re trying and trying and trying, and once in a while you still lose someone, you think, ‘Man, 

Captain James McGowen
Credit James Brown WXXI

what else can we do? We’re doing it all right.’ We’re trying all this new stuff and we think, ‘Boy … this kid isn’t going to talk to his dad ever again, or his mom or his sister,’ ” said McGowen.

McGowen is confident that there was no foul play in this case. There was a continuous camera outside of the man’s cell, which was locked, and he did not have a cellmate. McGowen said the inmate, who has not yet been identified, showed no mental health red flags in the five weeks he was in jail.