Jail Inmate Managed to Hang Himself During Time Feds, County Sought to Curtail Suicides

Second of two parts

The Medical Examiner's Office could not determine exactly why Timothy M. Jones died in King County Jail this year, as we reported yesterday. But it's clear that new federally approved safeguards to prevent such jail deaths didn't benefit him. Similarly, a prisoner who died last year wasn't served by the new medical and security measures either: Though they were largely aimed at preventing inmate suicides, the prisoner managed to hang himself even as King County and Justice Department officials were instituting the reforms.

The stories of those two inmates, along with a mentally ill woman who died in the jail this year from cardiac arrest, are told in government documents obtained by Seattle Weekly in an attempt to assess how the jail reforms have been working.

For suicide victim Domenic A. Vittone, at least, they didn't work well enough. After he was booked into the downtown jail last September on a felony warrant, an intake interview determined Vittone was not suicidal nor had he attempted suicide in the past year. But in a matter of a few days he would kill himself in a dorm cell housing three other inmates.

The 49-year-old felony theft suspect was suffering from prostate cancer and kidney disease, records show, and on Sept. 7, 2011, his second day in jail, he was taken to Harborview Medical Center with chest pains. He spent two nights there, then was returned to custody.

The next day he was found on his jail dorm floor, but jail medical personnel determined his vital signs seemed in order. The following day, however, September 11, he was sent back to Harborview, then returned the same day (exact medical details are unavailable due to privacy laws).

Whatever was troubling Vittone, he "cured" it on his own: Just after midnight on September 12, a custody officer saw the inmate hanging by his neck in his dorm cell.

He had somehow obtained elastic surgical material used to hold catheters in place and employed it as a noose, trying the other end around a television support pole.

Three other inmates in the dorm said they had watched TV with Vittone and nothing had seemed amiss. They were sleeping when he hanged himself. He was ruled dead at the scene, dying from asphyxia caused by his improvised ligature, the medical examiner says.

At the time, federal monitors were overseeing efforts to improve prisoner safety and decrease suicidal risk after the Justice Department had determined the jail's procedures and conditions were a threat to prisoner civil rights.

In a subsequent status report on the reforms, the feds revealed there had been a suicide in the midst of their efforts to prevent them, as SW reported. But it was not until release of the new jail investigative reports this month that we learned the name of the victim and manner of death.

As the Weekly has been reporting since 2005, inmates have regularly taken advantage of exposed plumbing, fixtures and wires to commit suicide. They include inmates who have hanged themselves using light fixtures and TV power cords.

Three inmates "slumped" to their deaths during one month in 2010, tying sheets or clothing to beds and fixtures, then sitting or leaning forward as their nooses asphyxiated them. Another hanged himself with ripped up sheets and delayed attempts by guards to save him by blocking his cell door with his own court documents. The feds identified 44 cells in the downtown jail that they considered "dangerous" for suicidal inmates.

In February this year, the feds and the county announced they had completed the two-year, court-ordered jail monitoring and instituted new reforms. Officials were pleased with the effort, although five inmates died while the jail was being watched over by the feds.

Hardly a month later, another inmate was found dead in the 26-year-old jail. The newly released records identify her as Diana L. Holmes, 40, a mental health patient who had tried to stab her sister and was arrested March 20 for domestic violence.

On March 23, she was found lying nude and unresponsive on a cell floor. She had no pulse and her face had turned blue. Rescue efforts began, and Medic One was called. Medics worked on her for a half hour and finally produced a weak pulse. She was rushed to the hospital but died two days later. Death was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Some deaths are to be expected at the jail, which harbors a vulnerable and ailing population. Many of the jail's suicides, however, were preventable.

Lindsay Hayes, the Justice Department's lead monitor, praised the county for its reform efforts in his ninth and final monitoring report issued in January. But, "With that said," he wrote, "the monitoring team leaves King County with some concerns."

Despite a suicide prevention program that attained substantial compliance with the court agreement, he said, the five suicides during the federal period "resulted in a two-year suicide rate that is higher than the most recently reported average rate for other county jails throughout the country."

Still, jail officials and staff were taking their responsibilities seriously, he added, and remained committed to reducing the body count. That seems to have resulted in at least one upbeat result: No jail suicides have been reported so far this year.

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