INDIANAPOLIS — Officials with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) said they are taking additional steps to prioritize mental health assessment and treatment in the new Adult Detention Center at the Community Justice Campus on the city’s southeast side.

The new jail began operations several days ago and since Friday, a total of nearly 1,500 inmates have been transferred from Marion County Jail 1, Jail 2, and the City-County Building.

It was on Monday that the MCSO announced the death of an inmate who had been booked into the new Adult Detention Center less than two days prior.

According to MCSO officials, a 45-year-old man was found unresponsive and not breathing by jail staff around 6:50 a.m. Staff on scene started CPR, called for on-site medical staff and requested assistance from Indianapolis Emergency Medical Services (IEMS). Despite lifesaving measures, the man was pronounced dead.

Preliminary information, according to the MCSO, is that the man died by suicide. At the time of his death, authorities said he was being housed in a detox housing unit, not a suicide housing unit, because he did not present with suicidal ideations during or after he was booked directly into the new jail.

“When this happened, we’ve had 3 1/2 days of 12 hour shifts at a time moving all of these prisoners and I know when I was called by Colonel Martin, he said the jail commander was really physically upset with what had just occurred and to know that, I mean people take this personal,” said Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal.

The MCSO said it has been focused on increasing mental health resources for inmates and recently announced a plan to hire full-time suicide prevention advocates in hopes of reducing the suicide rate.

During a recent tour of the new jail, MCSO Colonel James Martin said, “We have a lot of our population that is detoxing and withdrawing through opioids, narcotics, alcohol abuse. If you look through the history of some of our unfortunate events, these are the people that are hurting themselves, these are the people that we’re trying to get to.”

“With deputy and detention deputies walking around, there’s times they don’t always have to stop and deal with some of the problems they have. These are the people that we are asking to find the time that’s their focus. Stop and find what that is,” said Forestal.

On Tuesday, Forestal told CBS4 that the department has filled about five suicide prevention advocate positions. The first two individuals in these roles started on Tuesday, one day after the inmate death was reported.

“Does that prevent every one? No, but that’s five more sets of eyes and not just Monday through Friday, we want day and night and weekends, so if someone says they didn’t present any kind of risk at the booking counter, later on maybe they do and we’re hoping that those are more steps we can take to prevent that,” said Forestal.

The MCSO also recently received a grant from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for more than $1 million to increase the programs that they have already. One of those is the suboxone program, which provides medically assisted treatment for individuals going through detox.

To fast-track access to resources within the jail and create a more efficient system, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said inmates can make medical requests, requests to see chaplains, requests for programming services and similar needs through tablets.

In 2021, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office logged 1,044 threats of suicide made by inmates. Sadly there were also 10 suicide attempts and 7 inmates that died by suicide.

According to a report by Reuters last year, death rates at the Marion County Jail were two to three times higher than the national average. We explained the findings of the report in a previous story.

As part of their continued efforts to decrease those numbers, the MCSO said the design of the new building is helping to reduce opportunities for anyone to harm themselves, but it isn’t the end-all solution.

“Coming into the new building’s not gonna solve everything. I mean a nice, clean building with better conditions doesn’t make everyone automatically happy. It’s one of the primary causes we wanted to look at was to reduce suicides and it’s tragic when whether it happens day one, two, or day 365,” said Forestal.

However, he admits the physical improvements in the new jail are significant and are a step forward. Before the opening of the new Community Justice Campus and Adult Detention Center within, it had been more than 50 years since Marion County opened a fully updated jail.

“We’ve tried to round off every corner, eliminate every hook, anything we can do. They have 365 days, 24 hours a day to look at it,” said Forestal.

Although the steps are in place, Forestal said he knows realistically, they may not unfortunately prevent every tragedy.

“We take every step when somebody tries to — we figure out how do we prevent the next one,” said Forestal. “Tragically, but efficiently, we’ll be able to document it more often. We’d like to know it beforehand.”

“I’m actually hoping this will be the last time we would talk about this with anybody, but we know realistically that may not be true,” said Forestal.

One more thing he said MCSO needs to help these efforts is more staff. The department has faced staffing challenges and has been working to narrow the gap and fill positions.

“We have over 2,500 camera views. There is not a realistic number that we could sit down and have people look at all of those cameras and know all of the time, but after the fact we can see the steps that someone’s taken. One of the things we have is the direct supervision cell blocks. That’s newer for us. We’d like to have all of those spots filled. They’re not,” Forestal said. “But, where a dozen people are in there and a deputy or detention deputy is able to see what’s going on they can take those steps before we have a documented death,” said Forestal.

Right now, the department faces an approximate 220 person staffing deficit, including deputies, detention deputies and civilians.

“Cameras can’t replace the people. We can document it and it’s good and it’s another set of eyes, but we need hands on for people to be able to take those steps to cut someone down who may try to hang themselves or somebody who is physically harming themselves like cuts,” said Forestal.

The new Community Justice Campus, the jail included, will operate on the grounds of prioritizing assessment and treatment over incarceration, especially for those who struggle with mental health or substance abuse disorders. The recommendations to do so come from Mayor Hogsett’s Criminal Justice Task Force, launched in 2016.

Forestal said he wants people to understand that inmates deserve equitable rights to services and hopes with the efforts to improve mental and physical health resources, it will reduce the number of inmate suicides that Marion County sees.

“We’re trying to make things different for people and so that people are treated fairly,” said Forestal.

Suicide prevention resources

Anyone who may be experiencing a suicidal crisis or in emotional distress is encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides free, 24/7 confidential support, as well as prevention and crisis resources for people nationwide. That phone number is (800) 273-8255.

Additionally, community members with loved ones incarcerated in the Marion County jail system, who may have concerns an inmate might harm themselves, are encouraged to call (317) 327-1461.

“If somebody’s making the claim, they don’t tell our deputies, they don’t tell our suicide advocate, they don’t tell our medical providers, they tell their mother, their sister, ‘I’m thinking about ending it,’ make that call because sometimes somebody’s just been sentenced that day and have that information,” said Forestal.

You can reach also the Families First Crisis and Suicide hotline by calling (317) 251-7575 or texting “CSIS” to 839863. You can also find more resources online at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention of Indiana.