Fayette inmate's suicide attempt probed

| Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A man who officials said tried to hang himself in the Fayette County Prison on Sunday remains hospitalized, according to the warden.

A corrections officer who was making rounds at the jail in Uniontown discovered the unidentified 25-year-old inmate hanging from bedsheets in a housing corridor about 6 p.m., Warden Brian Miller said.

It is unknown how long the man was hanging before he was discovered, but Miller said he had a pulse when he was cut down. The man was taken to Uniontown Hospital, then transferred to UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, where he was in the facility's intensive care unit on Thursday afternoon, Miller said.

Miller said when the man was placed in the jail on Friday, he gave no indication during the intake process that he might be suicidal. The inmate scored only a 3 on a questionnaire designed to identify such risk, Miller said. To be placed on suicide watch, inmates must score at least an 8, he said.

“He didn't go to anybody and seek out help,” Miller said. “The only thing we can hope for is that he pulls out of it.”

Miller declined to release the man's name. He said he believes the man was in jail on a burglary charge.

Miller said another inmate in the same housing area was asleep when the man tried to hang himself, so there were no witnesses. Miller said he does not suspect foul play, but state and city police were asked to investigate.

Charles Bittner, 48, of Uniontown told the Tribune-Review he was in the lockup on Sunday when the inmate attempted suicide. Bittner said he did not see the man hang himself, but the man had told other inmates he was “dope sick,” or in drug withdrawal.

“He was suffering the whole weekend,” said Bittner, noting the man told other inmates he had used heroin before his incarceration. “On Sunday night, he couldn't handle it anymore.”

Bittner said the man told other inmates he was denied medication to ease the withdrawal symptoms.

“He didn't get any,” Bittner said. “He was going through it all with nothing.”

Miller could not be reached for comment on whether the inmate had requested treatment for drug withdrawal.

Bittner said he was in jail for failure to pay child support and was released on Monday.

No one from the county's Domestic Relations Department could be reached for comment regarding Bittner's incarceration, but court records place Bittner in jail at least three days before the suicide attempt. He had been released by Thursday, according to jail officials.

Al Ambrosini, Fayette County commissioners chairman, said an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the suicide attempt is ongoing. He said the investigation so far has found that corrections officers were making their appointed rounds.

“It's an unfortunate situation, but it was somebody who wasn't rated for a suicide watch,” Ambrosini said. “He wasn't a risk. We're not really sure what happened.”

Ambrosini said he was unaware of allegations the inmate was in drug withdrawal.

The county in 2011 was sued in federal court by the survivors of a Dawson man who hanged himself in the jail in 2009. Cade Stevens was going through heroin withdrawal when he hanged himself with a bedsheet in his cell.

Surveillance footage at the prison on Sept. 12, 2009, shows Stevens, 25, hanging from the bedsheet for almost a half-hour before corrections officers cut him down. The suicide followed two unsuccessful attempts less than 10 minutes earlier.

The lawsuit, which is pending in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, faults prison officials for allegedly failing to place Stevens on suicide watch despite a mental health evaluation indicating that he might harm himself and was going through heroin withdrawal.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media.

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