D.C. jail announces more changes to reduce inmate suicides

A day after the fourth apparent suicide in less than a year of an inmate behind bars, the head of the D.C. Department of Corrections said he has launched a thorough review and overhaul of jail policies.

On Monday, D.C. jail officials announced the death of Mike Johnson, 53, of Southwest Washington. Johnson, who had been charged with two counts of sexual abuse, was found hanging in his cell.

With Johnson’s death, jail director Thomas N. Faust said his office has decided to require inmates to share cells at all times.

The theory, he said, is that it would be more difficult for inmates wanting to commit suicide to do so if there’s a cellmate.

In June, two inmates died from what officials said were suicides. Walter Calloway, 42, of Southeast Washington was found hanging in his cell. Calloway had been charged with child sexual abuse.

About a week before, a Labor Department attorney, Paul Mannina, 58, who had been charged with sexually assaulting his co-worker, was found in his cell with his throat cut.

Several police officials familiar with the case said Mannina killed himself with a razor.

And in November, Michael English, 22, who had a history of mental illness and was charged with stabbing a friend who he said tried to touch him in his sleep, was also found hanging in his cell.

Only Mannina had a cellmate.

Faust said there have been other jail changes since Mannina’s death. Officials have stopped issuing disposable razors to inmates during their first week in jail.

Faust said the razors will no longer be issued to inmates whose mental health and demeanor are still being assessed at the start of their jail stay.

“If the worst thing that happens for the first five or seven days is that they have a beard, than so be it,” Faust said in an interview.

Jail officials also noticed that all four deaths behind bars involved inmates charged with violent sexual assaults. Faust said he is planning to seek additional mental-health assessments for inmates who have been charged with such crimes.

The changes Faust outlined Tuesday come on the heels of ones his office announced last month, after Calloway’s suicide. They included increasing the frequency of security checks to 15 minutes from 30 minutes. Authorities have also asked for help from the Federal Bureau of Prison’s psychological services unit to review how employees assess inmates’ mental health.

Faust plans to present a report about the review and changes at the jail to city leaders in coming weeks, he said.

Mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who oversees the District’s Department of Corrections, said he was “very concerned” about the spate of inmate suicides.

“I want to know what we can do to intervene and be sure that people who need help get help,” Wells said.

Wells said he plans to review the findings of the internal investigation and hold hearings on implemented changes in late September or October.

A spokesman for Paul A. Quander Jr., the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said Quander was “happy with how Faust” was addressing the issue.

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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