Suicides Cause for Concern at Lake County, Indiana Jail | WBEZ
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Suicides Cause for Concern at Lake County, Indiana Jail

The sheriff in Lake County, Indiana, is set to meet with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice this week. The DOJ is threatening to sue the sheriff because of conditions inside its county jail. Mounting suicides among adult inmates, unsanitary conditions and staffing issues are just some of the problems. WBEZ's Northwest Indiana Bureau reporter Michael Puente takes a look at what's being done to correct the situation.

In early 2007 things were going well for Adekunle Odumabo.

ambi of recorded song

That's Odumabo singing his song “Tonight.”

He recorded it at his studio in the south suburbs. The song sounds upbeat and fun, but soon Odumabo's life would swoon into despair.

ODUMABO: I'm ready to give my life instead of wasting the government's money on me. I'm ready to give my life. If that would change the situation I am ready to give my life right now. Right now! It is worthless! I am ready to give it. He can take it. They can all take it!

That's Odumabo, a native of Nigeria, at a federal court hearing in April 2007. This was after his arrest on a warrant for allegedly using fake credit cards and IDs.

ODUMABO: It's costing the government. You can take my life, honestly speaking.
JUDGE: No one wants to.
ODUMABO: I got to spend two years with my son that's enough.
JUDGE: No one wants to take your life and we do want spend the money to make sure that you're not convicted if you're not guilty.

Talking to Odumabo is Paul Cherry, a federal magistrate judge in Hammond. Cherry kept Odumabo behind bars but sent warnings to officials at the Lake County, Indiana Jail of his threats.

CHERRY: I am ordering the United States Marshal to inform the facility where he's being held that he has made several suicidal statements in the courtroom today and that they should appropriately monitor him for a suicidal condition.

Odumabo was transported to the county jail in Crown Point and placed on suicide watch. For one day.

Three days later, on April 30, 2007, Odumabo committed suicide. He used a bed sheet to hang himself in his cell.

SOWELL: I would love to know what happened because he was there and he was just there briefly. The judge had put in place measures so that things wouldn't happen and they weren't followed. And his life was just taken away like it didn't matter.

That's Tamarra Sowell of Joliet who's filed her own lawsuit against Lake County, Indiana officials, two years after Odumabo's death. She claims officials didn't do enough to prevent the death of Odumabo, her fiancé and father to her then two-year-old son.

SOWELL: A lot of people are committing suicide there and it can be prevented. If it's ordered that people should be supervised and prevented and helped then it should be in place. It should happen.

Sowell isn't overstating the problems inside the Lake County Jail, Indiana's second largest county jail. The U.S. Department of Justice says suicide prevention practices at the jail are “dangerously” inadequate.

The DOJ toured the jail in December '08. It issued a scathing report a few months ago. The report finds the Lake County jail experiencing five suicides by inmates from 2006 to 2008. The jail has about a thousand inmates.

Most jails that size experience less than one suicide per year, according to the DOJ. By comparison, the Cook County Jail, which handles eight times the amount of inmates as Lake County, experiences less than two suicides per 100,000 inmates per year. That's well below the national rate.

LISKOW: We believe this could have easily been prevented if there were some practices in place at the jail for preventing suicides and for treating people with mental health illness.

That's Samantha Liskow, a Chicago attorney handling Sowell's lawsuit against Lake County. Liskow is also representing seven other former inmates in a separate lawsuit against the Lake County Jail.

That lawsuit centers on inmates allegedly being held in small holding cells for up to weeks at a time when they first arrive to the jail usually in unsanitary conditions, with poor access to medical care, the lawsuit alleges.

A federal judge is deciding whether to roll up all the complaints into a class action lawsuit.

LISKOW: Most Americans I believe think that the kinds of conditions we're hearing about in the Lake County Jail only exist in prisons and jails outside of this country. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

On a recent visit to the Lake County Jail, I was told each inmate gets a full mental health evaluation when they arrive.

When the DOJ came to visit the Lake County Jail 15 months ago, it criticized the jail's mental health staff for not reviewing intake evaluations on inmates. It called staff unqualified to conduct suicide screenings.

When I was there, in one of the jail's main monitoring stations, I see correctional officers keeping an eye on inmates in their cells via video monitors. When the DOJ visited, it noted cameras in the suicide watch cells weren't working.

The report also says correctional officers should be checking on inmates at risk for suicide in person rather than by closed-circuit TV. The DOJ is threatening a lawsuit if improvements aren't made.

DOMINGUEZ: I have to run the jail given the tools I have to work with.

That's Roy Dominguez, sheriff of Lake County, Indiana.

Today, Dominguez flies to Washington D.C. to make the case that the jail has improved. But Dominguez feels handicapped.

DOMINGUEZ: I've made the request for more staff and more funding. Last year the County Council demanded that I cut our jail budget by $2 million.

Dominguez says the problems from preventing suicides to maintaining sanitary conditions come down to money.

Lake County officials are forcing every county department to cut costs by 15 percent to make up for a budget shortfall. That could force Dominguez to eliminate 40 correctional offices. The DOJ's report states the jail currently may be short some 70 employees.

DOMINGUEZ: I welcome the department of justice review because now the Department of Justice has basically told the Council and the Commissioners these are things that you have to do.

BILSKI:  The taxpayers are requiring us to cut and that's what we're going to have to do.

Ted Bilski is vice president of the Lake County Council. The board controls funding for all county departments including the sheriff.

Bilski says the sheriff, like other county elected officials, will have to do more with less, in spite of what the Department of Justice may threaten.

BILSKI: They're going to once again put mandates on us and we don't have the resources or the means to pay it.

In recent weeks, the Lake County Council approved a half a million dollars to develop a computerized health records system for the jail. The money will also be used to improve sanitary conditions in the jail. Other changes include contracting with a new mental health service provider to handle professional evaluations and screenings.

DOMINGUEZ: Suicides are tough. They are tough for everybody I mean.

Sheriff Roy Dominguez.

DOMINGUEZ: Within the last two years we have new protocols; we have new services and let me say in the last two years we've not had a suicide.

Dominguez hopes all of this will be enough to prevent the Department of Justice from taking more action.

But changes aren't going to deter Tamarra Sowell form pursing her lawsuit over Odumabo's death.

SOWELL: If he had an issue with being locked up, it should have been address, it should have been taken care of. And, all he had to be was supervised and of course he couldn't have been supervised. This thing happened.

Sowell says she wants an answer as to why no kept a closer eye on her fiancé even after a judge ordered officials to do so.

The courtroom audio for this piece is courtesy of the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper.

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