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'Suicide-safe' jail bedding is ineffective

Los Angeles County officials are pushing for safer products after inmates have been able to fashion nooses from mattress covers and blankets.

July 05, 2010|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Jail-issued mattresses and blankets designed to prevent suicides have failed to meet their safety goals, as several Los Angeles County inmates have been able to fashion nooses from their bedding.

In one instance last year, an inmate was found in his cell in the sitting position, hanging from a makeshift noose tied to the top of a bunk bed. The noose in the April 2009 suicide was made from a strip of fabric torn from a mattress cover that had been designed to guard against suicides, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Blankets specifically marketed as suicide-safe by their manufacturer and purchased by the county have been ripped and shredded, and in several instances last year were used in suicide attempts. Much of the bedding was purchased as a cheaper alternative to sturdier bedding requested by the Sheriff's Department. The problematic blankets and mattresses remain in use as department officials say they are pushing for safer products.

County jails are equipped with so-called suicide-safe blankets purchased for less than $55 each; the thicker, sturdier blankets sheriff's officials had requested cost more than $135 each, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. Department officials say inmates chew at the blankets' border stitching, working them until they give and inmates can tear the material into strips for nooses.

"They come up with some very clever ways," said Cmdr. Stephen Johnson, with the sheriff's custody operations division. "Ways we would not consider."

In May 2009, an inmate in the county's Twin Towers jail hospital unstitched his blanket, tore it into strips, fashioned a noose and hooked it to a fire-sprinkler base plate. The apparent suicide attempt was foiled just minutes after midnight by a guard making routine checks.

The general manager of the company that makes some of the suicide-safe blankets said he was unaware of the incidents.

"Is it possible? Yeah, it's possible," said Stacy Schultz of Wisconsin-based Humane Restraint Inc. "Everything is destroyable."

Suicide-safe bedding is generally rigid and coarse, with reinforced stitching along the borders that is often crisscrossed throughout. A blanket feels like a thick plastic tarp.

Mattresses are assembled by the Sheriff's Department, using thin foam cushion with covers stitched on. They are designed to guard against suicides and are issued throughout the jails, even among inmates who have not been identified as suicide risks.

Department officials have been seeking an outside alternative with no luck, Whitmore said, particularly after one was used successfully in a suicide last year.

The blankets are used exclusively among inmates deemed a high risk of attempting suicide. Within county jails, there are 125 beds equipped with the specialized bedding, the great majority of which are used at Twin Towers. Almost 1,500 unpacked blankets are in storage, and department officials will have to decide what to do with them if they switch manufacturers, which they hope to do.

The blankets that have proven to be faulty for suicide-risk inmates in county jails are also used in other prisons and jails across the country. But sheriff's officials have said conditions in their jails are particularly challenging, given the high number of inmates with mental health issues. Sheriff Lee Baca has described his jails as "the largest mental health provider in the country."

Since 2006, there have been 22 inmate suicides in county custody, with a spike last year of eight. Almost all of the suicides were by hanging, according to records from the state attorney general's office.

Michael Gennaco, head of the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, which monitors the Sheriff's Department, said officials had made a genuine effort to find blankets and mattresses that were more suicide-proof. But he said the department had lagged in the past in its suicide prevention efforts. In a recent example, he said the department was slow in replacing shower-curtain rods that inmates at Men's Central Jail had used to hang themselves.

"It would be great if this could be sped up," Gennaco said.

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