Prisoner suicide raises questions in Ohio jail

Some have questioned why William Overbey was allowed to be out of his cell on a second-story structure

By Josh Jarman
The Columbus Dispatch

LICKING COUNTY, Ohio — The recent suicide of a Licking County jail prisoner has both local and national officials wondering whether more can be done to prevent inmates from taking their own lives.

William Overbey, 45, of Frazeysburg, who was being held on charges of felonious assault and child endangering, leapt over a railing of his second-story cellblock on Tuesday, falling about nine feet and sustaining a critical head injury. He later died at Licking Memorial Hospital.

He is the third prisoner to commit suicide at the jail this year, though those are the first at the jail since 2003.

Because Overbey was on a form of suicide watch — he was classified as having suicide risk potential earlier that day by jail mental-health staff members — some have questioned why he was allowed to be out of his cell on a second-story structure in the first place. Licking County Sheriff Randy Thorp said restricting depressed prisoners to their cells can sometimes do more harm than good by furthering their isolation.

Also, restricting their movements and privileges can be viewed as a punishment, which can cause those with suicidal thoughts to withhold their feelings from jail staffers, Thorp said. Staff members walk a fine line between restricting prisoners' movements for safety reasons and potentially violating their constitutional rights, he said.

"We're more than concerned; we feel sick about it," Thorp said. "We believe in the policies and procedures we have in place, but we're still frustrated."

State guidelines require that prisoners be screened by mental-health officials upon entry to a county jail and require officers who notice any changes in behavior or mood to refer those inmates for further mental-health screening. That was done in Overbey's case, and the mental-health official determined that he was not actively determined to kill himself.

The guidelines also prescribe a two-tiered approach to dealing with prisoners who have been identified as at risk for suicide. Those with a slight risk, such as Overbey, are to be more closely monitored than other prisoners, with a deputy checking on their welfare at irregular intervals not to exceed 10 minutes.

Those with the highest suicide potential, classified in Licking County as suicide risk active, are to be monitored continuously.

Lindsay Hayes, program director for the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives, said the two-tiered system is the national standard because it would be unreasonable to subject all potentially suicidal inmates to constant supervision. And the system has been proved to work. A multiyear study of suicides in county jails conducted by his organization and released last summer revealed that the number of prisoner suicide deaths has fallen from 107 per 100,000 inmates in 1986 to 38 per 100,000 in 2006.

While that's an improvement, it's still more than three times higher than the average of 11 suicides per 100,000 people in the general populace, he said.

Hayes, who works as a national consultant on inmate suicide prevention, said that while he applauds Licking County for not wanting to lock down an inmate in his cell, keeping him in a two-story housing unit was a questionable decision.

"Someone had the inclination to say, 'We need to watch this inmate,' " Hayes said. "The question is, was he put under a level of observation commensurate with the risk?"

Thorp said his officers followed the jail's procedures to the letter, but sometimes there's nothing that can be done to dissuade inmates who are determined to harm themselves, especially if that person has not made the full scope of his or her intentions clear.

"I don't think you can claim indifference," he said. "We're beating our heads against the wall asking ourselves, 'What else can we do?' "

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