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Pa. correctional facility’s detox, mental health policies questioned after inmate’s suicide

A Luzerne County Correctional Facility lieutenant says COs need more training on how to recognize inmates at risk

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By Eric Mark
The Citizens’ Voice

LUZERNE COUNTY, Pa. — Luzerne County Correctional Facility’s treatment of inmates going through mental health crises and drug detoxification is under scrutiny after an inmate died by suicide this week.

Mercedes Alaimo, 25, was pronounced dead Monday after a suicide was reported at the county jail in Wilkes-Barre, Coroner Jill Matthews said.

Following an autopsy on Tuesday, Alaimo’s death was ruled a suicide caused by hanging, Matthews said in a news release.

District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said his office is investigating Alaimo’s death, which is standard procedure after an inmate dies at the jail.

Alaimo was incarcerated Saturday for failure to appear in court for drug-related charges, and was awaiting a March 2 hearing in county court, Sanguedolce said.

Changes needed?

The scenario — a female inmate with substance abuse or mental health issues dying by suicide soon after arriving at the jail — is both familiar and troubling to Mary Stein, a lieutenant at the correctional facility.

Stein, who is on unpaid extended leave from the jail, expressed concerns about the jail’s policies regarding suicide prevention for inmates going through detox.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stein, who said she worked in corrections for many years in Lackawanna and Pike counties before she took a job at LCCF in 2021.

The jail should have a better system for risk classifications for inmates, especially those in their first days of incarceration, Stein said.

“The first 72 hours are so important, when they are most vulnerable and depressed,” she said.

Institutions where she worked in other counties had better protocols for identifying and treating inmates at risk of self-harm, Stein said.

Corrections officers need better training in how to recognize inmates at risk and how to treat inmates in general, she said.

“In Pike County we called them ‘offenders,’ not ‘inmates,’” Stein said. “Their punishment is being there. Who are you to make it worse for them?”

Attorney Theron Solomon, of the Dyller Law Firm in Wilkes-Barre, said jail officials need to focus on care for newly arrived inmates going through drug detox, which can be brutal.

Some people going through that ordeal “would rather take their own life,” Solomon said.

His firm has represented the families of several inmates who died by suicide, and in each case the person who died was going through drug detox, Solomon said.

County and jail officials could take one positive step by funding and providing detox medication when needed, he said.

Alaimo’s death is the latest in a series of LCCF inmate suicides and attempted suicides going back years. Four female inmates died between June 2017 and January 2018. Three of the deaths were ruled suicides.

County council tried to address the problem in 2019 by authorizing a contract with the jail’s health care provider that called for a greater emphasis on mental health care.

That has not worked out well, Stein and Solomon said. Substantive change will not happen quickly, Stein said.

“A correctional facility is like a cruise ship,” she said. “It’s going to take some time to turn that ship around. Suicide prevention training needs to be done regularly.”

County Councilwoman Lee Ann McDermott said it is clear there are serious problems at the county jail.

The jail should have more oversight from county officials, McDermott said, though she did not advocate the formation of a formal prison board, as in counties that operate under Pennsylvania’s standard form of government.

“We need some oversight somewhere,” McDermott said. “We need to figure out a way.”

Acting county Manager Brian Swetz and acting Director of Corrections John Robshaw did not return messages seeking comment.

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