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July 10, 2014

Clausi: 2 deaths under warden in one year are "unacceptable"

SUNBURY — Two suicides within a year under Warden Roy Johnson’s watch are unacceptable, says a county commissioner who with a colleague has fielded numerous phone calls from relatives of inmates who say they have been abused inside Northumberland County Prison.

Changes need to be made immediately, say Vinny Clausi and Steve Bridy, who are commissioners and members of the prison board.

Commissioner Rick Shoch disagrees.

Shoch, vice chairman of the prison board, said jailhouse staff did everything correctly on June 15, the night that Cyrus Lewis, 34, hanged himself inside the lockup.

When an inmate arrives, he is automatically placed on watch because staff doesn’t know the inmate’s situation, Shoch said. Prison workers are unaware whether an inmate may be on drugs, intoxicated or have a history of medical or mental issues, Shoch said.

Each inmate is then seen by a physician or staff member of Prime Care Medical, which services the jail, to determine the status of the inmate. Lewis was incarcerated for only five days before he killed himself.

In August, Andrew Beers, 27, of Paxinos, also hanged himself inside a county cell.

Protocols followed, Shoch says

Shoch acknowledges the prison had two suicides in less than a year, but jailhouse workers are doing all they can.

“It is always tragic when a person decides to take their own life, and my heart goes out to this man’s family and loved ones,” Shoch said. “Prison suicide is an issue that all prisons nationwide struggle to address, and local prisons in particular.

In 2011, 35 percent of all local prison deaths in America were due to suicide, more than those due to drug overdose, homicide and accidents combined, Shoch said.

“In this case, all of our information indicates that the corrections officers involved complied with all supervision protocols that were indicated for this individual, given his status,” Shoch said. “Unfortunately, if a person is determined to take their own life, whether they be incarcerated at the time or not, there is no way to guarantee that they will be identified as suicidal and stopped from committing the act 100 percent of the time.”

Clausi and Bridy disagree.

“Mr. Shoch defends the prison but it’s going backwards,” Clausi said. “I urge all the members of the prison board to make changes. We need to clean this up. Two suicides under this warden’s watch is unacceptable.”

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