City News

Calls for jail renovations grow after an inmate’s suicide

An inmate’s suicide on Monday amplifies lingering concerns about the City-County Building Jail’s safety.

Image By: Briana Tolksdorf

In the last five years, only three Dane County Jail inmates died, none from suicide. That is until Monday, when inmate Brian Keith Rocca was found in his cell.

Despite the lack of inmate suicides, conversations about the outdated safety detail in the building where Rocca was held specifically concerned the likeliness of inmates ending their lives..

Rocca’s autopsy showed evidence of self-inflicted hanging. A full investigation is still being carried out by the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office. He had been in the maximum-security detention center since April after being sentenced to parole hold, meaning he could not be released on bail.

According to Gerald Landsberg, a New York University professor of social work, there are four times the number of suicides in corrective facilities than in the public.

The City-County Building, where Rocca was housed, is the oldest and only maximum-security facility out of the three Dane County Jails, and has long been criticized as structurally unsafe for inmates. The 2015 Dane County Sheriff's Office Annual Report suggested that due to the many physical security barriers, inmates were often left unsupervised and therefore at an increased security risk.

The oldest areas surveyed in this study were deemed dangerous for inmates due to the lack of visibility between bars in the cells. Following the annual report, a study analyzed the safety of the facility and evaluated the necessity of solitary confinement.

Recommendations highlighted by the study included upgrading the aged and potentially threatening doors and beds, as well as installing a digital voice communication system in order to reduce suicide risk.

The facility’s newer cells, a part of a recent renovation, are more easily supervisible but house up to 50 inmates, drastically decreasing each person’s privacy. However, experts said living in a space with that many people can be difficult for inmates with mental illness.

According to the Bureau of Justice, jail inmates meet the threshold for serious psychological distress five times more than the general public.

The final report stated that “the County should take steps to discontinue the use of the [City-County Building] Jail to house inmates.” If not, it could cost the county an estimate of over 47-million-dollars to mitigate all of the problems that were mentioned in the report.

Additionally, the study collected data on the use of “restricted housing,” or solitary confinement. It found that 14.4 percent of inmates in solitary were there on suicide watch. It also showed the top disorders inmates in solitary confinement suffer from are depression and anxiety.

“One of the biggest problems they had was that there was no decent way of handling a suicidal person except to lock them in solitary,” Pamela Oliver, a UW-Madison sociology professor, was told on a visit to the City-County Building Jail in 2016.

With an overwhelming amount of advice to close the City-County Building Jail, the county is developing the new Public Safety Building. Construction will begin in 2019 and put all the facilities under one roof.

“With jail death, there’s always the question and suspicion with some cases … but suicides in jails are really common and then the question is: did they have a way to prevent it?” Oliver said. 

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