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JAIL MIGHT REMOVE SPRINKLERS : VENTURA INMATES HAVE USED FIXTURES TO COMMIT SUICIDE.

Byline: Kermit Pattison Daily News Staff Writer

Spurred by seven suicides by prisoners over the past 16 years, the Ventura County Jail is considering removing sprinkler heads from cells to prevent inmates from hanging themselves.

Jailers may seek an exemption in state fire codes to remove sprinkler heads from cells because five of the seven suicides occurred when inmates hung themselves from the fixtures, said Cmdr. Joe Harwell of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

``It's obviously attractive to someone who is self-destructive,'' he said. ``That is something we're going to try to approach, to eliminate them from the cell areas.''

After discussing the matter with a fire marshal, Harwell said the jail apparently could qualify for an exemption in state law allowing it to remove sprinklers from individual cells if it added additional ones outside the cells. He said the jail had asked contractors to estimate the cost of the work.

``It is doable,'' he said. ``Now it's just a matter of seeing what the tab will be to get it retrofitted.''

The issue took on added urgency when inmate James Thompson, 32, of Oxnard hung himself from a sprinkler May 27. But Harwell said the department began looking into removing the fixtures before the recent case.

Harwell said the sprinklers in individual cells are of limited value because the jail no longer allows prisoners to smoke or possess matches. And he said the concrete cells contained few combustible items except for bedding, paper and books.

Even if the fixtures were removed from the cells, he said, the sprinklers would remain in common rooms, hallways and elsewhere in the jail.

``The sprinkler head is obviously something we'd like to address,'' he said. ``We haven't found a way to make it tamper proof or eliminate the possibility of it being used that way.''

Seven inmates have committed suicide since the jail opened in 1980. Five of them hung themselves from the sprinkler fixtures, usually with bed sheets, according to the Sheriff's Department.

In the other two suicides, one strangled himself with a bed sheet and one jumped from a balcony.

All the suicides occurred at the main jail at the Ventura County Government Center, Harwell said. There has been none at the new Todd Road Jail near Santa Paula.

In 1994, 40 people committed suicide while in custody in local, county and state jails and hospitals in California. In 1993, 58 people killed themselves while in custody, according to the California Department of Justice.

Harwell said the Ventura County Jail routinely screens prisoners for signs of suicidal tendencies. Inmates deemed a danger to themselves are placed in safety cells with supervision and examined by a psychiatrist, he said.

``We deal with on any given day probably five or six instances where we take precautions where we have (inmates) evaluated or placed in safety cells,'' Harwell said. ``We're constantly on alert for these types of things.''

But Harwell acknowledged that inmates sometimes slip through the cracks.

In the most recent case, he said, jail employees detected no clue that the inmate was suicidal although he showed some signs of depression.

``He was on the telephone just prior to this incident,'' said Harwell. ``I don't know if that triggered it or not.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 2, 1996
Words:539
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