Michael Amon

Jail Suicide Investigation Nearing End In St. Mary’s; Probe Said to Exonerate Staff, But Mother Alleges Mistakes

Posted in The Washington Post by michaelamon on December 7, 2006

November 25, 2001 — The Washington Post, p. C1
Michael Amon, Washington Post Staff Writer

St. Mary’s County sheriff’s detectives are wrapping up a two-month internal investigation into an inmate’s suicide at the county detention center, and they expect to report that correctional officers did everything they could to save 19-year-old Robert Allen Nelson’s life.

But the man’s mother, Victoria Nelson, has charged that jailers did not closely watch her son, who had a history of depression and had attempted suicide several times. Nelson hanged himself in his cell Sept. 28 and died a day later at Washington Hospital Center.

The mother’s account is supported by the “call sheets” that were filled out by nurses and by paramedics who were called to the jail. The documents suggest that correctional officers failed to make an hourly check on Nelson the night he hung himself.

The dispute comes as law enforcement officials have begun calling for more staffing and training of officers at the St. Mary’s County jail, saying unfilled positions have led to dangerous lapses at the facility.

Critics, including some top county officials, point to the sexual assault of a retarded man in the jail last year, an incident that officials acknowledged happened when correctional officers failed to make a routine check of the man’s cell. They say a similar failure allowed Nelson time to hang himself.

“I think it’s something that should be checked out,” Richard D. Fritz (R), St. Mary’s state’s attorney, said of the suicide.

Fritz pointed to two reports from county grand juries that examined the detention center. On March 7, a grand jury said that the jail “is without a doubt undermanned” and, along with a report from the year before, recommended that county commissioners allocate money for new positions.

With the November 2000 sexual assault in mind, the grand jury wrote: “Up front action taken to help prevent a repeat of the situation could well prevent a costly lawsuit to the county in the future.”

In April, Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R) asked commissioners for 10 new correctional staff positions. They budgeted money for two.

“I’m getting a little fed up and a little tired of those recommendations not being taken into consideration by the county commissioners,” Fritz said.

Julie B. Randall (D-At Large), president of the St. Mary’s County Commission, said the problem is how Voorhaar spends the money the board gives him.

“Many of the ways he has decided to spend the funding, certainly I and others would not have made those same choices,” Randall said. “However, that’s his to do. To merely come back on this board and say that there are still funding issues, I take exception to that.”

Fritz said that he is willing to investigate Nelson’s suicide but that he is waiting for Victoria Nelson to put her concerns in writing.

Victoria Nelson said she does not trust Fritz to do the investigation because he was once her son’s defense attorney, and the family’s relationship with him withered after Robert Nelson was put in a juvenile detention center several years ago.

“I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t start an investigation based on the circumstances alone,” Victoria Nelson said.

At 1:10 a.m. Sept. 28, Robert Nelson was found hanged in Cell C-14. He had fashioned a noose of bedsheets and shoelaces tied to a vent in the wall. He died the next day at Washington Hospital Center, though sheriff’s officials released information Oct. 1 saying that Nelson’s life had been saved by correctional officers.

After Nelson’s death became public, sheriff’s investigators said the correctional officers made a routine hourly check of the young man about midnight, a claim that detectives investigating the incident stand by.

“The correctional officers did nothing wrong. They made their hourly checks,” said Sgt. Michael Merican, head of the sheriff’s internal investigations unit.

But according to two documents filled out by paramedics at the scene and nurses at St. Mary’s Hospital, Nelson was last seen by correctional officers at 11:15 p.m. In separate interviews, inmates Daniel Ball and Garry Shubrooks, whose cells were near Nelson’s, also said the guard did not make a check at midnight.

Voorhaar said he “would have to look into that” discrepancy. He said that the jail had six vacant positions at the time of Nelson’s death and that the jail remains so understaffed that supervisors are doing the work of regular correctional officers.

“That means they can’t do their supervisory responsibilities,” Voorhaar said.

Lindsay M. Hayes, who has conducted several national studies on jail suicide, said many of the 400 to 600 inmate suicides every year happen when guards fail to make checks.

“Often a suicidal inmate may time their suicide attempt with a guard’s check and then the check never happens, and the suicide is completed,” Hayes said.

Such lapses in inmate monitoring occurred 900 times during fiscal 2000, Sgt. David Zylak, acting commander of the detention center, told county commissioners after the sexual assault.

Zylak said he could not comment on Nelson’s case because of the open internal investigation.

Voorhaar said the jail usually has an inmate classification specialist who determines whether an inmate is suicidal and makes sure the inmate is supervised properly. But that position was vacant when Nelson hanged himself and won’t be filled until December, Voorhaar said.

Officials said Nelson had been placed on suicide watch before, though they were not sure if that was when he was in juvenile detention or in the St. Mary’s jail. Nelson was in jail in connection with two June burglaries. He was arrested and jailed in the detention center July 10.

Nelson had been placed in disciplinary confinement in August. On the night he hanged himself, a correctional officer had disciplined him and threatened him with another month of confinement for throwing a shoe at her, according to a jail citation written Sept. 27.

Nelson’s mother said correctional officers should have made a point to check her troubled son, who had tried to kill himself several times while in juvenile corrections facilities, according to hospital documents.

Even before his short stay in the St. Mary’s jail, the teenager seemed to feel imprisoned.

According to hospital records, Nelson had bipolar disorder and severe episodes of depression. He turned to crime at a young age, and so many of his teenage years were spent in juvenile detention centers that he never sat for any of his family’s portrait photographs, his mother said.

While incarcerated, Nelson obsessively wrote his girlfriend’s initials on the pages of crossword puzzle books, composed poetry about “the prison within myself” and lifted weights.

In a letter to his mother dated 2 a.m. Aug. 28, Nelson wrote from solitary confinement that he was contemplating a life in prison, saying he was “working out 10 hours a day” to protect himself from other inmates.

“You say you want me to write you to tell you how I’m improving my behavior, but the truth is . . . I’m not. I’m preparing myself for prison,” the 19-year-old wrote.

On the day he hanged himself, Nelson was chipper much of the time, playing a game of pickup basketball and joking with friends, inmate Ball said.

He wrote two letters that night. The first, written before he was disciplined, was cheerful, his mother said.

The second letter was written a few minutes before he hanged himself. It was a suicide note.

“I was told that in jail would be the safest place he could be,” Victoria Nelson said. “Now there are so many what-ifs. If they had just checked on him, who knows?”

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