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Stop the Nassau jail suicides

People are still killing themselves in the troubled Nassau County jail -- the latest of them Bartholomew Ryan, a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Iraq. He was the fifth suicide in the facility since January 2010. County officials don't really have solutions for this tragic situation. They had better find some, fast.

It's not long since the federal Department of Justice ended its oversight of the jail, which began after correction officers beat an inmate to death in 1999. In a consent decree, the county agreed to a list of changes. The facility eventually met them, and federal monitoring ended in the summer of 2005. But if it doesn't want the Justice Department to return, the county must do far better at handling potentially suicidal inmates like Ryan, who hanged himself in his cell last month and died, despite 25 minutes of life support by correction officers.

One of the thrusts of the consent decree was training. The result was an annual 40-hour program for correction officers, which included such subjects as first aid, CPR, gangs, and suicide awareness. But to cope with the county's fiscal crisis, jail officials have sharply trimmed the training schedule. Unbelievably, one of the classes eliminated was suicide awareness.

The Nassau County Sheriff Officers Association, which represents the correction officers, pointed out another indicator of deterioration: To save money, the county demoted 30 of the 90 corporals among the correction officers, which sharply reduced the amount of supervision.

Further evidence of the jail's indequate response to the suicides is its failure so far to respond to recommendations made by the state's prison and jail watchdog agency, the Commission of Correction, in response to an earlier suicide. On Jan. 3, 2011, inmate Darryl Woody hanged himself. The commission investigated and filed a scathing report last September. It blasted the "grossly inadequate psychiatric care" for Woody in the jail and "lack of appropriate supervision" by the Nassau University Medical Center. Since then, the county has privatized medical care for inmates, but the commission says Nassau has yet to detail what it has done in response to the report's criticisms.

The Commission of Correction has a staff of 28, including only 15 to conduct investigations at about 540 jails, prisons, police lockups, and secure facilities of the state's Office of Children & Family Services. In other words, it has a lot on its hands. So it would be helpful if a more local oversight organization, focused solely on Nassau's jail, could also keep a close watch on its operation.

Actually, the county legislature created just such an entity, called a board of visitors, in 1990. But three county executives have so far failed to fill its membership and get it going. The county is likely to get sued for this continuing failure. It also faces a lawsuit from the Ryan family. So, filling those board seats, restoring suicide training, and answering the state's recommendations are a bare minimum.

Bartholomew Ryan survived war and suffered its effects on his mental health. Then he took own his life, when a facility that should have kept him safe did not. He is a casualty both of war and government incompetence. The least we owe him is to fix the jail where he died.