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Man who hanged himself in D.C. jail had history of violence, mental illness

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A recent college dropout who hanged himself in the District’s jail on Nov. 30 had a history of violence and mental illness, and he was two weeks away from a scheduled court hearing about his mental health, according to court documents.

Michael English’s parents repeatedly asked authorities for help with their son, at times seeking to protect family members from him. Even English’s probation officer told a court last year: “This officer is extremely concerned about Mr. English’s well-being, as well as the safety of the community.”

Since his final arrest in October, for allegedly stabbing a longtime friend, English had begun a mental evaluation process his family hoped would get him the help he needed. But D.C. police and corrections officials are now investigating his death, which a medical examiner in Maryland has ruled a suicide by hanging. It was the first suicide at the jail since 2009.

His mother, Margaret English, said her son’s death is an example of how difficult it can be to help someone with a pronounced mental illness, even when family members and criminal-justice workers know the person is a danger to society and himself.

A spokeswoman for the corrections department said the jail has procedures to prevent inmates from killing themselves while in custody. She declined to release details about English’s case, including whether he had been considered at risk for suicide.

English said her son’s mental issues worsened over the past few years and became acute in college, causing him to drop out of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania his junior year. People who knew him at McKinley Tech High School in the District said English, who graduated in 2008, was smart, fun-loving and not a troublemaker.

“He was a good kid,” said his mother, who hopes his death will bring more attention to mental-health issues. “Jail is not an appropriate place to be for people with mental illness. I don’t want his death to be in vain.”

English, 22, hanged himself with a bedsheet one month after entering the D.C. jail. He had been locked up since Oct. 30, charged with stabbing a sleeping friend with a butcher knife at English’s home.

A witness told police that English was seen on top of the man and holding a knife. When police arrested English hours later, he had blood on his clothes, according to D.C. Superior Court documents. English said he attacked his friend because the man had tried to touch him in his sleep, an assertion he repeated many times about different people in his life, records show.

The friend, who survived the stabbing, is recovering from a punctured kidney and other injuries.

Shortly after his arrest, English told a Saint Elizabeths Hospital psychologist that he was having hallucinations and hearing voices.

“The voices tell me all sorts of stuff. . . . Sometimes I listen. . . . Sometimes they tell me to do things. . . . Some are women screaming at me. . . . Sometimes I see weird things,” English told her during a Nov. 16 jail visit, according to a report she filed with the court. He told her he was taking psychotropic medications while jailed.

In that report, the psychologist found English competent to stand trial. She offered to conduct another assessment to help determine whether he was competent at the time of the alleged attack; if he was not, he might have pursued an insanity defense. A “mental observation hearing” in English’s case was scheduled for Dec. 14.

Court documents show English had been hospitalized for brief stints in the District and Virginia for diagnoses of paranoia and schizophrenia. After he was released, according to those documents, he took his medication inconsistently and sometimes used illegal drugs, including liquid PCP.

In May 2011, English was charged with sexually assaulting a toddler he knew. He admitted the abuse, saying it happened because the child initiated the sexual contact, court records show. English pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor sex offense and was sentenced to six months in jail, three of them suspended. He also was placed on three years of probation.

His father, William English, wrote a letter to Superior Court Judge Thomas Motley in the summer of 2011 pleading for his son to be given access to mental-health services and “a safe environment to start addressing his issues.”

English was released months later and was back on the street, homeless. While he was on probation, he used illegal drugs and failed to wear his location-monitoring device dozens of times, records show. He also said he was going to stab someone, a threat police say he later carried out when he attacked his friend.

English’s probation was revoked after a hearing on Dec. 21, 2011, and he was sent back to jail to serve the remaining three months of his sentence. Records indicate he was released in late January or early February. When he was released, he was no longer on probation nor monitored by the court’s supervision agency, records indicate.

On Feb. 12, English allegedly punched a family member in the face, unprovoked, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He previously had said the relative tried to touch him in his sleep, according to court documents.

In October, English was arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill while armed for stabbing his friend, and he also was charged at that time in the punching incident.

English was found hanged Nov. 30, and he was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to court documents.

The last person to kill himself in the D.C. jail was Josue Pena, 26, who was charged with killing a 9-year-old boy in Columbia Heights by firing a gun through a closed door. Pena was found hanging by a bedsheet in November 2009, several weeks after he allegedly shot Oscar Fuentes. There were suicides in the jail in 2006 and 2007, according to corrections officials.

Staff writer Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.

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