The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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July 2, 2014

Suicides raise questions about prison operation

SUNBURY — The recent suicide at the Northumberland County Prison marked the fourth death of an inmate by suicide since 2003, more than the combined total of two other Valley prisons over a similar time frame.

Two of those suicides occurred within the past year, under Warden Roy Johnson, who took over the top spot in 2009.

The other two came under Warden Rick Reish, who served from 2003 through 2009.

Snyder County Prison has had two suicides in 19 years. Union County Jail has had one in the past 13 years.

Although the Northumberland County Prison is much bigger than the other county jails, one Northumberland County commissioner is still alarmed by the ongoing issues inside the prison, which is more than 100 years old.

“It is very concerning, and we need to figure out how to curb this,” said Commissioner Steve Bridy, a former prison board chairman. “When I was chairman, I was able to watch video footage of incidents that had taken place in the jail and then I was able to determine what, if anything, went wrong and how we could make corrections.”

Bridy: Information gap

The most recent suicide occurred in June and Bridy said all he was able to see was a report prepared by Warden Roy Johnson.

In August 2013, then-President Judge Robert Sacavage called a meeting of city, county and state officials in the wake of a controversial response to the suicide of Andrew Beers, 27, of Paxinos. Beers — who sought protective custody — was found dead in his cell after he hanged himself.

Less than a year later, in June, 34-year-old inmate Cyrus W. Lewis killed himself in his cell.

Judge holds review

Sacavage questioned Johnson last August whether all professional standards were met before and after Beers was found and Johnson told the judge the prison workers followed protocol and did everything they could.

Sacavage also addressed the lack of law enforcement at the prison during times of distress.

Sacavage created a plan to avoid any other conflicts that could arise during a time of crisis at the prison.

Commissioner and prison board Vice Chairman Rick Shoch defended Johnson and said the warden did everything by the book with the latest death.

Lewis was last seen alive at 8:55 p.m. on June 15, when he was checked on by prison staff.

Within 27 minutes, Lewis hanged himself with a strip of bedsheet tied to a windowsill at the back wall of the cell and was found at 9:22 p.m.

Although he was pronounced dead at Sunbury Community Hospital at 9:49 p.m., Johnson said Lewis was “probably dead before he was cut down.”

Snyder County Warden Shawn Cooper said there is no way to predict when an inmate may attempt suicide and that his staff monitors inmates frequently.

Union County Jail Warden Doug Shaffer has 24-hour care for inmates if the staff is concerned the inmates might harm themselves.

“It’s our job to make sure inmates are OK,” he said. “It all comes down to what we do on intake. When the inmate comes in, we watch closely and we decide if they would need to be on suicide watch, whether that be every 15 minutes or 30 minutes or even constant watch.”

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