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Westmoreland prison suicide probed

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, June 3, 2003

An investigation has been launched into a suicide in April at the Westmoreland County Prison to determine if medical personnel erred by not placing an inmate under special supervision then later covered up that decision after the man killed himself.

County prison officials want to know why an inmate was placed in the general population after he was placed on suicide watch during a previous stint at the lockup.

That inmate, 33-year-old Robert R. Steadman, of Sewickley Township, hanged himself in his cell on April 18, four days after he was incarcerated for failing to make a family court-ordered payment.

Steadman had been an inmate at the prison in January and at that time threatened to kill himself. Prison officials put Steadman on suicide watch, meaning he was monitored via cameras in his cell, and items such as his shoelaces were removed.

He subsequently was released from jail but was re-incarcerated on April 14. This time he was not placed on suicide watch.

Sources close to the investigation said there have been reports that at least one intake counselor noted that Steadman should again be placed on suicide watch when he was readmitted to the prison in April.

Instead, Steadman was assigned to the general population and used his shoelaces to hang himself four days later.

Internal prison investigators have looked into reports that a document was falsified and replaced to show there was no notation that Steadman was a suicide risk.

"I believe somebody outside the prison said something was changed, but I don't believe it was," said Prison Board Chairman Tom Ceraso. "I can't recall if there was any evidence. I don't believe we are looking into it anymore."

Ceraso, a county commissioner, confirmed Monday that the investigation surrounding Steadman's death is still ongoing, with a focus on policy issues as well as whether there was a mix-up in the paperwork that accompanied Steadman's April admission to the jail.

Ceraso said Steadman's internal jail admission report listed another inmate's identification number. Neither Steadman nor that man had been assigned to the suicide watch unit.

Still, the investigation won't be finished until next month, Ceraso said.

Steadman's sister, Renee Wright of Sewickley, said she has not heard from prison officials since her brother's death but was told at that time there would be an investigation.

Wright said she was not told about the nature of the probe.

The only other contact she has had with the county came when the prison recently sent her a check in the amount that remained in her brother's inmate account. The check was for 2 cents.

"To me, it was like saying how much his life was worth to them," Wright said.

According to court records, Steadman was in and out of prison since last June, when he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault while driving drunk.

He was charged with being drunk on Feb. 19, 2002, when his car crossed over into oncoming traffic on Route 3057 in Sewickley Township. Authorities said Steadman's blood-alcohol level was twice the 0.10 limit at which a motorist in Pennsylvania is considered to be intoxicated.

The female driver of the oncoming car was injured in the crash.

Steadman was released from prison last July 31 on $10,000 unsecured bail. He failed to appear in court for his March trial, and at that time Westmoreland County Judge Debra A. Pezze revoked his bail.

But Steadman had been in prison before that after failing to make a payment ordered by the county's Domestic Relations office.

Those records are not available for public review, and prison officials declined to disclose exactly when Steadman was first jailed and initially placed on suicide watch.

"The county is not ready to disclose that information at this time, until an internal investigation is completed," said new prison Warden John Walton.

Steadman was the fourth inmate to commit suicide at the county prison since 2000.

-- In January, Lee Vincent Guiser, 23, of North Huntingdon Township, was found in his cell at the prison with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. He died of asphyxiation from hanging.

-- In February 2002, Robert B. Snead, 51, of Steubenville, Ohio, hanged himself in his cell a day after he was jailed on a contempt of court charge. Snead died a week later from injuries sustained in the hanging.

-- In March 2001, John R. Schott, 37, formerly of North Huntingdon Township, hanged himself in the jail shortly after confessing to a series of holdups.

Coroner Ken Bacha said his office reviews all reported suicides at the prison, but no further investigations were necessary.

Bacha said he was unaware of the internal prison probe concerning the Steadman case. Had he known before a final death certificate was issued, he might have conducted an inquest into the circumstances, he said.

"An internal investigation is a reason to have one, but no red flags came up," Bacha said. "It's unfortunate these keep happening."

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