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At the Cumberland County Jail, inmate suicides are 'off the charts'

Three corrections officers were indicted on Sept. 14.

For hours on a winter morning, Megan Moore's crying at the Cumberland County Jail could be heard by an inmate in a neighboring cell.

Moore had arrived at the jail on Feb. 18 on outstanding warrants. Her jailhouse neighbor, who was released in May from the Bridgeton facility and spoke recently on condition of anonymity, said Moore asked corrections officers to see a medical professional "at least 10 times" the next day before being taken to a nurse once. Later, as she walked past where Moore was on suicide watch, she saw the 21-year-old sobbing.

On Feb. 20, Moore was found hanging in her cell.

"She would still be living if [corrections officers] had done what they had to do," the former inmate said. She said she was in the jail serving time for a 2014 robbery to fund a drug habit, but has since kicked her addiction and is employed.

Moore's suicide is one of six in less than three years at the jail, which has a population of about 375 inmates and 160 officers.

At least two of those inmates, one of them Moore, were on suicide watch, warden Richard Smith said last week.

The spate of suicides has brought both lawsuits and, in the case of the two most recent deaths, prosecution: Three corrections officers were indicted on Sept. 14.

The number of suicides at the South Jersey jail is "off the charts," said Philadelphia lawyer Conrad Benedetto, who has sued on behalf of each of the six families.

Each suit alleges that corrections officers did not adequately monitor detainees and that contracted medical professionals with CFG Health Systems failed to properly screen newly admitted inmates for suicidal tendencies or psychological problems.

The others who took their lives while in the jail:

  1. David Hennis, 31, who was arrested by Vineland police on July 22, 2014, and found hanging in his cell by an on-duty nurse on July 30, 2014, according to the lawsuit.

  2. Jon Watson, 43, of Bridgeton, who was found hanging in his cell by another inmate on June 3, 2016. According to his obituary, Watson was self-employed in construction and enjoyed fishing.

  3. Robert Wayne Lewis, 35, of Vineland, who was arrested on Oct. 26, 2015, for allegedly robbing a spa with a knife, Vineland police said. Lewis, who worked at a local car dealership and was an avid sports fan, struggled with depression and addiction, his obituary reads. He was found hanging in the jail on Oct. 30, 2015.

  4. Alissa Allen, 24, of Millville, who was arrested on March 20, 2015, on a traffic warrant. Her family told the Daily Journal that Allen had issues with drugs, but was trying to stop and "had a big heart." She was found hanging in her cell on March 22, 2015.

  5. David Conroy, 32, who was discovered hanging in his cell by another inmate on May 29, 2017. He had three daughters, his obituary says, and loved outdoor activities.

"When you have six suicides of individuals in a jail, there has to be something wrong," Benedetto said. "How inmates are watched and guarded, and how they are treated and given medical attention, that is what is relevant."

He said the families he represents were not willing to be interviewed.

Cumberland County Jail Warden Robert Balicki — named in all of the suits — retired and was succeeded by Smith in February. Smith is named in the suits related to Moore and Conroy, who also was on suicide watch.

Prosecutors have charged Officer Tabatha Roman with endangering another person, saying the 31-year-old created a "substantial risk of death" in connection with Moore's suicide. Officers Nicolas Gomez, 27, and Justin Cimino, 40, were charged with tampering with public records and falsifying forms in Conroy's death.

The three have been suspended without pay and await court dates.

Unions representing the officers blame insufficient training in spotting mental-health problems and claim the jail is using its employees as scapegoats.

"If you give these officers the right tools, you won't be in litigation with the families," Mike Gallagher, PBA Local 105 vice president, told members of the Board of  Freeholders at a Tuesday night meeting.

But mental-health advocates say the number of hanging deaths at the jail is unusual. At Ocean County Jail, with about 490 inmates, there has been one suicide in the last three years, according to its warden. Burlington County Jail, with a population of 370, has had no suicides in the same time period, though earlier this year it settled a negligent-death lawsuit.

Phil Lubitz, associate director at the National Alliance of Mental Illness in New Jersey, said there are few standard protocols for dealing with mentally ill inmates. Each county has its own procedures. Steps taken to prevent suicides could include ensuring that cells don't have ceiling sprinklers to which a bedsheet could be tied, he said.

A study of inmate deaths by the U.S. Department of Justice's  Bureau of Justice Statistics, published in 2015, found 23 deaths in New Jersey jails in 2013, the most recent year it surveyed. It did not provide a breakdown by manner of death for 2013, but tallied 40 suicides among the total of 763 deaths of state and federal inmates in New Jersey between 2001 and 2013.

Benedetto asked federal prosecutors in April to investigate conditions at the Cumberland County Jail. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office and jail declined to elaborate on the charges brought against the corrections officers, but county solicitor Ted Baker said staff are trained to "make observations and have sensitivity to their surroundings."

Arriving inmates are screened by contracted medical professionals, who also obtain assessments from police, Baker said.

Inmates undergoing drug withdrawal are a problem at all jails, but especially Cumberland County Jail. It is in an area that had among the highest number of opioid prescriptions written nationally in 2015, according to a report by the Asbury Park Press.

Since becoming warden in February, Smith said, several changes have been implemented to prevent further deaths, starting with installing surveillance cameras in eight cells designated for those on suicide watch, and hiring 40 new recruits.

Posters now line the jail's walls encouraging inmates in both English and Spanish to seek help if they are feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts.

A new regional jail is in the works to replace the current one, parts of which date to the 1940s, Baker said. The new 30-acre facility in Bridgeton, expected to be complete by 2020, will hold 390 inmates.

Even so, a modernized facility alone can't prevent deaths, said Christine Tartaro, Stockton University professor of criminal justice. Training and screening paired with around-the-clock direct supervision of those on suicide watch is key, she said.

Cumberland County Jail officers recently began checking on inmates at 15-minute intervals, rather than every 30 minutes, and they can constantly observe those on suicide watch by live video.

But, Tartaro cautioned,  "Cameras only work if someone is watching the monitor."