August 8, 2013

ON MONDAY, D.C. corrections officials announced the death of Mike Johnson, 53, who’d been charged with two counts of sexual abuse and who was discovered hanging in his cell. Mr. Johnson’s death is the fourth apparent suicide in the D.C. jail in the past year, a troubling fact that warrants immediate attention and action.

In the wake of a suicide earlier this summer, at the time the second in less than two weeks, Corrections Director Thomas N. Faust announced changes aimed at reducing suicide risks. Except in cases of extreme security concerns, every prisoner now shares a cell, and the frequency of security checks has been increased from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes. Officials have also begun paying particular attention to mental assessments and sharing information about individuals prior to incarceration.

Both changes emerged as issues in the June 18 death of Paul Mannina, a Labor Department lawyer who was charged with the sexual assault of a co-worker. Hours before Mr. Mannina was found with his throat slashed, he appeared at a hearing in D.C. Superior Court in which issues about his mental state were raised. That information apparently was not shared with jail officials, and somehow Mr. Mannina had access to a razor. Why prisoners were issued disposable razors in their first week at the jail remains unclear, but shaving equipment is no longer distributed until jail workers have collected all the necessary mental health information on inmates. As Mr. Faust told The Post’s Keith Alexander, “If the worst thing that happens for the first five or seven days is that they have a beard, then so be it.”

It’s commendable that D.C. corrections officials have taken steps to guard against suicide at the D.C. jail. But we have to wonder why it took so many tragedies before officials awoke to the need for increased protections. And now, even after implementation of Mr. Faust’s reforms, there is another death. That has to raise questions of whether the changes are sufficient or on point.

Although some progress may have already been made, Mr. Johnson’s death should spur a deeper review of what the jail is doing and how it can better equip its staff to deal with the risk of suicide when someone is placed in a cell. Corrections leadership can’t possibly need any more prodding.