Barbara Kice wants justice for her son, who hanged himself in 2015 in the Bristol County House of Correction. The jail, all by itself, accounts for more than a quarter of county inmate suicides statewide, and Kice thinks she knows why so many die: Jail officials do precious little to care for troubled inmates.
The Fall River mother filed a wrongful death suit late last month against Bristol County jail staff — and its tough-talking sheriff — claiming jail officials left him in solitary confinement the day after he had told a court doctor that he was going to commit suicide. He hanged himself with a bedsheet.
Kice’s lawsuit is one of at least four ongoing cases filed by family members or current inmates alleging that the Bristol County system fails to care for its mentally ill, drug addicted, and suicidal inmates. Each lawsuit claims that jail officials put troubled inmates alone in cells — sometimes for long periods — instead of providing special treatment to deal with mental illness or drug withdrawal.
“I hope that Bristol County will learn one good lesson on really focusing on these inmates that show mental instability,’’ said Kice, whose son was being held on charges related to a road rage incident. “Pay attention to them. Give them the help they deserve. They are human beings.”
Kice first discussed her 32-year-old son’s case in a New England Center for Investigative Reporting investigation published in The Boston Globe in May that showed that at least 14 men and women committed suicide in the Bristol County House of Correction between 2006 and 2016. Two more men died by suicide last year.
Bristol County accounts for just 13 percent of the inmates in the state’s 13 sheriff-run county jails, which collectively house nearly 11,000 inmates who are awaiting trial or serving sentences of up to 2 1/2 years. But, over the last six years, Bristol has accounted for more than a quarter of all jail suicides, 13 out of 49.
Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said this week that he could not respond to individual lawsuits, but said that his staff works hard to protect inmates.
The 64-year-old Hodgson, first elected sheriff in 1988, is the longest current serving county sheriff in Massachusetts known for his get-tough policies. He garnered national headlines for offering up inmates to build President Trump’s border wall.
Following public scrutiny about suicides in his New Bedford and Dartmouth jails last year, Hodgson ordered an internal investigation into seven deaths that occurred in 2015 and 2017, determining that staff had acted appropriately.
“Monday morning quarterbacking about suicides is a dangerous thing to do because every case is different,’’ he said. “We never want to lose anybody. That is what we take pride in, care and custody.”
The 11-page report showed all seven inmates had a history of substance abuse, including several who were either detoxing or had just completed the process at the time of death. All were alone in their cells when they hanged themselves. One managed to commit suicide while on mental health watch and wearing a tear-proof “safety smock” by smuggling in a piece of a sheet, the report said.
Hodgson said that while his internal review found no staff issues, the county is always looking at ways to improve. “When something like that happens, it is as devastating for our staff as it is for the families,’’ he said.
But concerns about treatment and care of inmates at the facility are mounting. In January, three inmates with mental illnesses jointly filed suit against Hodgson and other staff alleging they were treated to “extremely harsh conditions” and denied services.
Bonnie Tenneriello, a senior attorney with the Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services who is representing the clients, said her agency had heard for a “long, long time from prisoners with mental illness . . . who were warehoused in solitary confinement’’ for up to 23 hours a day.
David Prado of Taunton also filed suit against Hodgson and other county and state officials, claiming they failed to protect his daughter, Devon Prado, a 28-year-old mother who suffered from a bipolar disorder, anxiety and drug addiction, according to court records. She was first incarcerated for drug offenses on Sept. 5, 2014, and a week later was found hanging in segregation.
Prado claims the jail should have known she was an “obvious suicide risk” and made efforts to protect her from self-harm by, among other things, checking on her at least every 15 minutes.
“What happened to her should never have happened,” said Prado’s attorney, Mark Itzkowitz.
Deborah Taylor of New Bedford also filed suit because she couldn’t get any information about the suicide death of her son, Aaron Brito, in 2013, a day after being jailed on robbery charges. The more she learned, she said, the more she feels the county failed Brito, a single father and landscaper.
Brito had become addicted to drugs after being prescribed Percocet to treat a back injury, court records show. The suit claims the jail should have known he was at a higher risk because of his substance abuse issues.
“It is the most tragic thing that can happen to anyone, to lose a child by suicide,’’ she said.
Michael Ray became the latest to commit suicide in the Bristol jail, hanging himself in June 2017.
His fiancé Kellie Pearson said Ray also struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues and unsuccessfully sought help while awaiting trial on armed robbery charges.
“He would scream at me, ‘There is no help here, there is no help here,’’’ she said.
A state police report obtained by NECIR showed several problems leading up to Ray’s death. Among them, surveillance cameras weren’t working in his unit, the report shows. When Ray was discovered, a deputy unsuccessfully attempted to access a box cutter in a glass box. “He was so nervous, he could not break the glass with the attached tool and punched the glass in order to access the tool,” according to the report.
Hodgson said the cameras were monitoring the hallways, not the prisoners, so even if they had been working, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. He said the county is seeking funding to improve surveillance as well as other services, but finances are tight. “We are still working on trying to get a roof that doesn’t leak here,’’ he said.
Bristol County is not the only sheriff’s department fighting wrongful death suits over suicides, but it appears to face the largest number, based on a review of court records and a survey of sheriffs. Worcester County House of Correction is currently defending its role in the suicides of two inmates, but it doesn’t appear that any other jail is defending a wrongful death suit.
NECIR intern Claire Tran contributed to this report. McKim can be reached at Jenifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jbmckim. This story co-published with the Boston Globe and WGBHnews.org.