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Recent inmate death is fourth in two years at Roanoke City Jail

(WDBJ)
Published: May. 8, 2019 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Correction 8-13-19 11 a.m. :

The original version of this article included a typographical error. The lead sentence originally stated that the inmate suicide reported in May was the fourth suicide in the jail in the last four years. The article has since been corrected to indicate that the May suicide of Jeffrey Lee was, at the time it was reported, the fourth in the last two years.

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An inmate in Roanoke City's jail committed suicide last week, making his death the fourth suicide in the jail in the last two years.

Inmate Jeffery Lee, like others, died by suicide by hanging from a bed sheet.

The Roanoke Police Department and Roanoke City Sheriff's Office say they're doing a joint investigation. But this jail has previously been criticized by locals who have protested and asked for changes to prevent in-custody suicides and deaths.

Jail officials say on May 2 Lee was found hanging in his cell. After he was discovered unresponsive, officials tried to perform CPR. Lee was taken Carilion and died five days later. His suicide is the fourth in the last two years at this jail.

The most recent investigations began in May 2017 with the suicide of inmate Roy Foley. It was followed by the suicide of Joshua Matthew Jones in September 2017. That prompted protests outside the jail aimed at bringing attention to the deaths.

WDBJ7 interviewed Sheriff Tim Allen and Major David Bell about the issue in October of 2017. The sheriff said part of the growing problem was the increase in the homeless population and untreated mental illnesses. He said five of the seven inmate deaths between 2014 and 2017 were suicides by hanging.

"I don't feel that the bed sheets are the problem," Allen had said. "Being that that is what tends to be used nationally, but we still have a large population of inmates who should humanely have bed sheets."

He told us they were wanting to make changes, including more "mental health hours."

In April of 2018, the jail added a mental health unit, including therapeutic housing next to a crisis unit with cameras they said would be manned 24/7.

"We did a total review of our mental health program from top to bottom," David Major Bell told us at the unveiling.

Then in December of 2018, another suicide. Inmate Jeffrey Carl Six hanged himself. This too was followed by another protest and investigation by the sheriff's office.

In 2016, the mother of an inmate filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of her son who had committed suicide in 2015 at the jail. WDBJ7 has learned that suit is still moving through the court systems. Court documents WDBJ7 discovered show the trial is slated to begin in September of 2020.

WDBJ7 reached out to the sheriff asking questions about last week's death. Jail leaders denied an interview request.

But a spokesperson did answer questions we had via email. You can see our questions and their responses below.

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1. Was Inmate Lee under a suicide watch?

"Mr. Lee was not under any specific watch."

2. Had Mr. Lee been incarcerated in the RCJ prior to his most recent incarceration?

"We cannot release information on someone’s past criminal history."

3. How many inmates have died by suicide in the Roanoke City jail since January 2015?

"5 Inmate have died by suicide in the Roanoke City Jail from January 2015 - May 2, 2019"

4. How many of said suicides in that time frame have died by hanging from bed sheets?

"Bed sheets were used in all 5 suicides in that time frame."

5. What immediate protocol does the jail/Sheriff’s Office take following an inmate suicide?

"A co-investigation with a partnering law enforcement agency is immediately started."

6. Does the Sheriff feel that the mental health unit instituted in 2018 helped to reduce the number of mental health related incidents in the jail?

"Yes. The Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office is always looking into improving our efforts when it comes to inmates with mental health concerns. We work closely with our community partners and local medical providers in order to provide to best services possible to our inmates. We have spoken to City leadership in regards to increasing our staff to better accommodate the growing need in the mental health field. We have been working on expanding our Mental Health Unit to other housing units in the facility."

7. How many inmates are currently being prescribed medication for the treatment of a mental illness?

"Currently 181 inmates are on prescribed medication for the treatment of mental illness."

8. How many current inmates are classified under a “suicide watch?”

Currently today, there are 6 inmates on suicide watch. There has been no instance of an inmate completing suicide while on suicide watch.

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