Jail staff exonerated in suicide Inmate's family announces it will file $3 million lawsuit; 'I'm satisfied,' Ecker says; In-house report criticized as being biased toward county


An in-house review at the Howard County Detention Center has concluded that jail staff did nothing wrong in connection with an inmate who killed himself Dec. 9.

"I'm satisfied they followed the [proper] policies and procedures," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker of the report released Friday. The jail's policies and procedures "do not need to be changed. I think they're adequate," he said.

But family members of Edward Leroy Bennett Sr., who hanged himself in his cell, have formally notified the county executive that they will file a $3 million negligence suit against the county on behalf of Mr. Bennett's 8- and 10-year-old sons.

"All the warning signs were evident in this case," said John Amato, a Baltimore attorney representing the Bennett family. "When you start lumping all that stuff together, you start wondering why he was not placed in a suicide-safe cell."

The head of a state inmate advocacy group said the county's investigative committee should have included members from outside the jail.

"I'm very disgusted," said Azora Irby-Muntasir, director of Maryland Citizens for the Rehabilitation of Errants, part of a national group that works to protect inmates' rights. The in-house investigation is "a joke," she said.

The family's formal notice of intent to sue -- delivered to the county executive late last week -- comes after a Jan. 29 article in The Sun outlined how jail officials failed to heed warning signals that the drug-addicted inmate was potentially suicidal.

The State Medical Examiner's office has ruled the death a suicide, but has not released an autopsy report.

Although he apparently never stated he was suicidal, Mr. Bennett, of southwest Baltimore, told guards when he arrived at the jail Dec. 8 that he was withdrawing from a $100- to $150-a-day heroin habit and had a history of paranoia. During his roughly 31-hour stay at the jail, his behavior signaled he was troubled, according to police and jail records and interviews with jail inmates and officials.

Jail suicide experts told The Sun that those warnings should have indicated to jail personnel that Mr. Bennett might pose a danger to himself and needed to be placed on a watch in a suicide-safe cell.

In addition, Mr. Amato criticized the jail about accounts from inmates and police reports that guards taunted Mr. Bennett and joked about his drug problem.

James N. Rollins, the jail's director, said that he investigated the death immediately after it happened and found that his staff followed proper procedures.

But after The Sun's report -- and under orders from Mr. Ecker -- the jail director reviewed the case again.

He picked five members of the detention center's security, personnel and contract medical staffs to conduct a two-week review of the jail's policies and procedures.

No outside parties were asked to participate in the investigation. "That's what the county executive and I had asked," Mr. Rollins said. "I felt that that was what was appropriate."

The result of the internal review is an 84-page document that consists mostly of copies of the jail's policy and procedure guidelines. It also includes a report from the Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards, which audited the jail in August 1995 and found it in compliance with state health and safety guidelines.

The report gives no details of how guards and medical staff treated Mr. Bennett or his behavior and mental state. But Mr. Rollins maintains that all of the procedures spelled out in the report were followed in Mr. Bennett's case.

Such policies and procedures include noting health problems and suicide potential when an inmate arrives at the jail and making an immediate referral to the medical staff if the guards consider such a referral appropriate. Guards also are required to notify the medical staff of unusual behavior by an inmate.

In Mr. Bennett's case, Mr. Rollins said the inmate was treated with Vistaril and clonidine, medications used in cases of drug withdrawal and hypertension. But he was not placed in a suicide-safe cell.

Mr. Rollins stressed that the inmate had been treated the same way in April, when he was held at the jail for three days without incident.

During Mr. Bennett's most recent incarceration, "No one on my staff received any information, from Mr. Bennett or any other inmate, indicating that he was suicidal," Mr. Rollins wrote in the report.

The detention center has had three suicides in its history: one in the late 1980s and two since 1991, when Mr. Rollins took over as jail chief.

Mr. Rollins said his staff has had -- and continues to receive -- regular training in suicide detection and inmate safety.

"We believe that the detention center's suicide preventative efforts and actual prevention record provide for the health and safety of the inmate population," Mr. Rollins wrote in the report. "Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, suicides do occasionally occur in detention centers."

Mr. Ecker said the report was enough for him to close the case.

"If they would have uncovered something, I'm sure they would have reported it," he said.

The county executive has ordered no policy changes as a result of the review. Last month, he announced that all suicides at the jail would immediately be announced to the media. Mr. Bennett's came to light weeks after it occurred only when inmates wrote to local newspapers.

James E. Murphy, a former federal prison warden who is a corrections consultant based in Laurel, said it is common for jails or prisons to conduct in-house investigations in cases, including suicides. "I don't think outsiders are necessary."

But the Bennett family's attorney and Ms. Irby-Muntasir, the inmate advocate, say outsiders should have been included.

Mr. Amato, who represents Mr. Bennett's two sons, who are living with their mother in Baltimore, said, "It's obviously disappointing when you find the investigation done only in-house."

Ms. Irby-Muntasir also said her group has been lobbying Gov. Parris N. Glendening, hoping to increase safety and health standards for prisoners because many of the state's inmates show signs of being suicidal or need mental health therapy.

"I get letters from mothers every day," Ms. Irby-Muntasir said. "I think this is a form of murder because he showed signs of suicide potential."

Joseph Rowan, a jail suicide prevention expert in Rosedale, Minn., who was critical of the detention center's handling of Mr. Bennett, said an in-house investigation is standard practice in such cases nationally. But he added that officials also should solicit an outside review, "otherwise people are going to be very skeptical."

In addition to an in-house review, Mr. Rowan said it is common for jails to ask state police or the attorney general's office to investigate the suicide.

"You can't just investigate yourself," he said.

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