Local News

Benton: SO seeking to prevent jail suicides

— When Scott Wilkie was incarcerated last year, he was interviewed by various jail employees involved in the booking process and he provided conflicting information on whether he had attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office documents state.

Ultimately, Wilkie committed suicide in his cell. Whether the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office could have prevented him from doing so remains unknown, Sheriff Susan Benton said.

But, Wilkie’s death may indirectly lead to steps being taken to at least help reduce the chance that someone might kill themselves in jail, Benton said.

Wilkie’s suicide became a topic of discussion last week after Jesus G. Avitia was found Monday morning unresponsive in his cell. Jailers found him with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck.

Benton said that although circumstances indicate he committed suicide, that determination will be done after getting the medical examiner’s report.

That two suicides may have occurred in Highlands County Jail during the past two years would not be necessarily unusual. National reports show that suicide is one of the primary causes of inmate deaths in jail.

A Home Learning Network report says during 2010, suicide was the leading cause of death among jail inmates. During that year, nationally, 33 percent or 305 jail deaths resulted from suicide, the report said.

Benton said the circumstances and the uncertainty about the futures are sometimes too much for inmates to handle.

Inmates are human beings and the responsibility of the sheriff’s office is to ensure their safety, as well as that of jail personnel, she said.

As the sheriff’s office works to put in place solutions to problems found during the Wilkie investigation, Benton asked, “Can we say this will unequivocally prevent this from happening in our jail? The answer is no.”

Benton said in the Wilkie case, the internal investigation found a systematic failure that led to communications problems. That Wilkie indicated to some staff he had tried to kill himself before was never communicated to other staff members, she said.

After the Wilkie investigation was completed, Benton had terminated a jailer on grounds he failed to make required checks on Wilkie. The jailer reported he thought someone else had made the checks, Benton said.

With the investigation showing the system had problems at various levels, Benton said, she decided that termination was too harsh of a step. She said she reinstated the jailer and reduced the punishment to a 30-day suspension without pay and a 12-month disciplinary probation.

A consultant hired by the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office found several problems. James D. Sewell, the consultant, wrote that supervisors should be held responsible for monitoring performance and making sure that rules are applied consistently.

Sewell also recommended that employees should use an automated log of what they do, such as inmate checks, as opposed to a written log and that information obtained during the booking process should be available to everyone involved in it.

In the case involved in Wilkie, some involved in the process didn’t know that Wilkie had provided conflicting information to others, the sheriff said.

Sewell recommended that a “working group” should examine the flow of information.

He also noted that although Wilkie had a history of suicide attempts, he was not housed in the suicide watch unit. That points to the need for increased suicide training, Sewell wrote.

Benton said Sewell’s recommendations have been implemented or are in the process of being put in place.

Some of the recommendations may not help prevent suicides, Benton said. But, she said, such reviews are important, even though some suicides are not preventable.

Such a review may determine that “there might one more thing we can do to minimize that from happening again,” she said.


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