O brother, where art thou?

A suicide epidemic at the county jail has family members of the dead asking why.

Brother’s keeper: Jake and Tonya as children.

Brother’s keeper: Jake and Tonya as children.

Courtesy Of Tonya Summers

No one will ever know exactly what was going on in Jake Summers’ mind when he took the money. It is just one of the mysteries surrounding the last days of his life. Only 23 years old, bright and talented, according to his friends, Summers, dressed in a black jacket and blue jeans, strolled into a Jamba Juice store on Alhambra Boulevard on the afternoon of February 5. After chatting up the store employees for a few moments, he snatched the tip jar from the counter and tried to make a run for it.

He didn’t get far, however. According to the police report, Summers, who had no weapon, was tackled in mid-getaway by a store employee, and then wrestled to the ground. There the two men struggled until the Sacramento Police arrived and Summers gave up his plan for escape. As he waited in the patrol car, the police report says Summers repeatedly said “I’m sorry,” and added, “I only did it because I was hungry.”

Summers, not quite 6 feet tall and all of 170 pounds, was booked on charges of “strong arm robbery.” No one was seriously injured, the tip jar was given back, and presumably things at the Alhambra Boulevard Jamba Juice returned to normal pretty quickly. Summers faced three months in jail for the attempted robbery, but didn’t make it a week. On February 8, he hanged himself to death in his cell.

His suicide, and several more that have followed at the county jail in the last four months, is still mysterious to those of us “on the outside.”

Summers was one in what you might call a suicide epidemic in the county jail, an epidemic that has provoked charges of mistreatment and neglect. In several cases, jail officials are accused of failing to follow basic rules regarding the treatment of inmates with mental illness, drug addiction and other medical problems.

And while the families of Jake Summers and the other men who killed themselves in the jail are trying hard to find answers, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department is making sure they don’t get them.

When Tonya Summers, Jake’s older sister, heard that he was in jail, she wasn’t sure how to feel. Jake was a heroin addict, and had been for over a year. Tonya, who makes her living helping people as a licensed spiritual-healer working from her home in South Land Park, felt she had done all she could for Jake.

Nobody wants his or her little brother in jail, but it was perhaps better than the alternative. She was frustrated with him. She had been through the nights of holding him in her arms as he writhed in pain from heroin withdrawal. She shared his hurt and disappointment as he went through rehab programs, only to blow it and start using again. She was certain that one day he would end up “dead behind a dumpster somewhere,” most likely from an overdose. At least, she thought, he won’t die in jail.

The day before Jake’s death, Tonya went to visit him at the jail. The visitors room was long and narrow, with a half-dozen identical booths that consisted of nothing more than a short stool bolted to the floor, a stainless steel counter and a black plastic phone. A bank of thick glass windows separated the visitors booths from identical booths on the inmates side. To receive visitors, the men must walk up a flight of stairs to an upper tier that overlooks the particular wing of the particular floor where the inmate is kept—in this case, the east wing of the fifth floor.

As Tonya waited for Jake, she would have looked down into a large bare room with a concrete floor—a kind of dead zone where only occasionally a sheriff’s deputy or an orange-jumpsuited inmate would stroll across the floor.

All around this central area, behind massive glass walls, were the inmate housing areas called pods. Straight ahead was one pod, a day room, furnished with couches and a television, in turn surrounded by two rows of cells, stacked one atop the other. Off to her right, another identical pod, and somewhere invisible to her a third pod, in this case the one where Jake was being kept.

To her left, she would have seen the control room, a raised booth, set into the wall, from which officers monitor and control all the movements of the inmates. The jail is set up to minimize contact between officers and the inmates, who, following directions via intercoms, are allowed in and out of their cells via remote control.

Perhaps as she waited, Tonya peered into the control booth and saw one of the control officers, silhouetted by the bluish-white glow of a television monitor, though she wouldn’t be able to make out what appeared on the screen.

When Jake arrived, taking a seat on one of the stiff stools in the visiting area and cradling the black phone between his neck and shoulder, Tonya tried to encourage him.

“I told him how beautiful he was, and how talented and how much he meant to everybody,” Tonya recalled. “I told him if he could get through this, he could get through anything.”

But the tenderness of the brother and sister’s visit gave way to bitterness the next day, as Jake went through a pre-trial hearing. In the judge’s chambers, while Jake waited in the courtroom, Tonya told the judge, the district attorney and Jake’s public defender that he was a heroin addict and that she feared for his life if he were immediately released onto the street. She pleaded with them to keep him safe in jail.

When Jake learned of this, he told her, “I can’t believe you did this to me. I hate you.” Jake hanged himself that afternoon.

But Tonya didn’t hear about it until almost midnight, when she got a call from Deputy Coroner Brianna Pierce. Even then, said Tonya, Pierce couldn’t tell her much about how her brother died, or even how he killed himself.

It was more than a week later, after the suicide of Nikolay Soltys—the Ukrainian immigrant accused of murdering several members of his own family, including his 3-year-old son—that a reporter told her that Jake, like Soltys, had hanged himself.

In the movies, the condemned man stands on a scaffold, with a noose around his neck and a trapdoor suddenly opens beneath him. In the movies, the man who commits suicide attaches the noose to a ceiling beam and then gives the chair he’s standing on a powerful kick. In both of these scenarios, death is quick and violent.

Tonya Summers wants answers about her brother’s death, but the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department won’t give them.

Photo by Larry Dalton

In the Sacramento County Jail, Jake Summers had a much more awkward and time-consuming task. He tied a thick knot in one end of a bed sheet and threaded it down through the drain hole in the middle of the upper bunk in his cell. The hole, no bigger than a nickel, was there to allow water to drain when the upper bunk is hosed off.

He tied the other end of the sheet around his neck and, crouched in the 4-foot-high space between the bottom and upper bunks, bent his knees until all of his weight was borne by the noose, and slowly, deliberately, strangled himself to death.

Of course, at the time, the news media paid no attention whatsoever to Jake’s suicide. A petty thief, a heroin addict, unknown save to his family and friends, Jake’s name didn’t appear in print until after Soltys’ death, and the furor over jail conditions that ensued.

Soltys was an obvious suicide risk. He made two apparent attempts—one by stabbing a pencil into his own chest, and another by leaping from the second tier onto the floor below—before he was successful in hanging himself.

Soltys’ lawyer, public defender Tommy Clinkenbeard, was furious that his client hadn’t been watched more carefully. He was even more incensed after he interviewed several inmates who contended that Soltys was virtually ignored by sheriff’s deputies on the days leading up to his death. Inmates told Clinkenbeard, for example, that Soltys has obscured his cell window with soap for two weeks, making it impossible for deputies to check on him.

Also, according to inmates interviewed by Clinkenbeard, Soltys had been seen dead in his cell by an inmate worker bringing breakfast at 5 a.m., at least two hours before he was found by deputies. Although jail policy is that inmates be checked at least once an hour, that procedure clearly wasn’t followed in Soltys’ case, said Clinkenbeard. Sacramento Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Sergeant James Lewis flatly denied this account. He said that it was an officer who brought Soltys’ breakfast, that he was alive at the time and that his window was clear, not obscured by soap.

Inmates have told the SN&R that deputies often spent hours watching television inside the booth of the control room, and that officers were busy watching cable TV the night Soltys died.

That charge has been vehemently denied by jail officials who claim that—aside from it being strictly against policy—it is impossible for officers to watch television because there is no place to attach cable or an antenna.

Nonetheless, the SN&R has obtained an internal document advising one officer that there was to be “No TV in the Control Room.” It’s not clear whether the document is a reprimand or a restatement of the jail’s policy. The date on the document had been obscured so it’s not clear when it was written. When asked about the warning, Sergeant Lewis said, “I’m not saying it never happens. If that went out, it was probably a reminder that [TV watching] shouldn’t be going on.”

Clinkenbeard has demanded an independent investigation into the death of Soltys and the other jail suicides this year. So far, he has received no response from the Federal Bureau of Investigations or the State Attorney. He has been contacted and questioned by the Sacramento County Grand Jury, which he believes is conducting an investigation.

Given the horrific nature of the crime that Soltys was charged with, there were probably more than a few people who thought “good riddance.”

But Jake Summers was no monster, and though his crimes were clearly crimes, they were not vicious.

Far from it, said Tonya. Jake never intentionally hurt anybody. Despite her frustration with him, she could still clearly see all the things that made him so dear to her. Jake was an artist with a knack for papier-mâché, he was an avid chess player, and was getting to be a pretty good cook. Most important of all, he was funny and warm and gentle, and liked by just about everybody he met, she said.

“There was nothing in this world more important to me than my brother,” she said. “I would have died for him.”

And at first, she blamed herself for betraying Jake. She thought he would be protected in jail, that he was under the watchful eye of people who could protect him from himself.

Or was he? Something that the deputy coroner told her bothered her right away. He said that Jake had been found dead at 5:47 in the afternoon, and that he had last been seen alive at 3:45. But the deputy coroner told her that she thought inmates were supposed to be checked on every half-hour. And the coroner couldn’t tell her whether Jake was under medical supervision. Indeed, she first assumed he was on the medical ward, because she was certain that he was suffering from heroin withdrawal.

She called the jail and was directed to a Lieutenant Braybeck. Here’s her account, simplified:

Tonya: “How did my bother die?”

Braybeck: “I cannot tell you that.”

T: “I heard he hung himself with his sheets. Can you tell me what he tied the noose to?”

B: “I cannot tell you that.”

The people’s lawyer: Public Defender Tommy Clinkenbeard is demanding an independent investigation into jail conditions.

Photo by Larry Dalton

She then tried to confirm the times given to her by deputy coroner Pierce, but Braybeck wouldn’t confirm them. He did tell her that the rule was that all inmates should be checked on at least once an hour. More questions:

“Did you know he was a heroin addict?”

“Was he put on any meds?”

“Was he alone in his cell?”

Each time the officer refused to answer her questions. Braybeck did, however, provide her a photo of the suicide note Jake had scrawled on his wall before he died.

The photo is dark, and some of the words are hard to make out. It reads:

“Turn to god. What have you been doing that’s so much better [illegible]?

God is the first and only thing among us that can fill the void we have inside of us. Until we are right with him, nothing can be right. Everything that is happening is part of his plan, no matter how hard we think we may have it.”

Tonya’s guilt gave way to confusion, then anger. She was convinced, by failing to give him the medical help he needed, by failing even to look in on him when they were supposed to, that jail officials were at least partly responsible for his death. But just as bad was the secrecy, the refusal of jail officials to tell her what she felt she had every right to know.

On March 28, another inmate, Mohammed Abdollahi, hanged himself in the same way that Jake Summers did. It was only after Abdollahi’s suicide that jail officials began welding shut the drain holes in the upper bunks. The delay is attributed by jail officials to security issues associated with bringing a welding torch into inmate areas.

Abdollahi was also addicted to heroin. Before Sergeant James Lewis was instructed by his superiors not to disclose certain information to the SN&R, he said that Abdollahi had demanded medication for his withdrawal symptoms and was given that medication within a half-hour. Beyond that there were no problems until he was found in his cell, shortly after midnight. A similar account ran in the Sacramento Bee.

But inmate Michael Goddard, who said he is in jail for a parole violation, told the SN&R that “The Sheriff’s Department has lied to the media,” about the Abdollahi suicide.

According to Goddard, he was in his cell listening, as other inmates, in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, were being interviewed about Abdollahi’s death by sheriff’s deputies.

He said these inmates claimed that Abdollahi did not, in fact, get the medication that he demanded, and that several inmates, somehow aware that something was wrong in Abdollahi’s cell, yelled for help for nearly an hour and got no response.

Based on what he overheard, Goddard said Abdollahi may have been dead nearly three hours before guards found him on their “hourly” rounds.

Sergeant Lewis said there was no truth in Goddard’s account. He also said that these kinds of statements from inmates about Soltys’ and Abdollahi’s suicides have no credibility because, after all, the men making these charges are criminals, and probably have some agenda—whether it’s to get attention or to somehow get back at the cops.

But the official version given by Sergeant Lewis is also based on an inmate’s account—that of his cellmate who, according to Lewis, said that he slept through Abdollahi’s suicide. “I guess [Abdollahi] didn’t gurgle loudly enough,” said Lewis in morbid jest.

But, as Goddard points out, even if it were possible to sleep through someone strangling themselves to death just a few feet away, it is harder to imagine that Abdollahi wouldn’t have waked his cellmate while affixing the noose.

Consider, like Jake Summers, Abdollahi used the drain hole in the top bunk to secure the noose. The bedsheet was knotted on one end and threaded down through the hole in the bunk, and presumably Abdollahi strangled himself in the bottom bunk while his cellmate slept.

How did Abdollahi secure the noose without removing the mattress (and its occupant) from the top bunk, and thereby waking his cellmate?

“That’s a good question,” said Lewis. He added that it was possible that the noose was secured while the cellmate was out of the cell. On the eighth floor, where Abdollahi died, inmates are only allowed out of their cells for one hour in every 24. Lewis also said it was possible that the cellmate simply slept heavily enough not to be disturbed by Abdollahi’s preparations.

County jail cell: Summers used a hole in the middle of the top bunk to secure his noose.

Courtesy Of Sacramento County Sheriff's Department

Early in May, Tonya Summers began to hear disturbing rumors about Jake’s death. A friend of Jake’s, Manuel Vasquez, spent a week in the county jail for a probation violation. While he was there, he said he heard other inmates talking about an inmate who killed himself, an inmate he believed could have only been Jake.

The suicide happened just before Soltys.

“They said it was a white boy, that he was here for heroin. They said he told the guards ‘Give me my medicine or I’ll kill myself.’ But they didn’t give him anything. And then he killed himself.”

The timing and description of the young man matched Summers. Unfortunately, the friend never got the names of anybody telling him the stories, and in fact, Manuel may not have even been sure of where he was in the jail. The rumor is just that—a rumor. But of course, it causes Tonya to panic. She is now unable to work; she is depressed, angry and exhausted. In the absence of any real information from jail officials, her imagination is getting the best of her. She even entertained the thought, briefly, that Jake didn’t kill himself at all, but that he was murdered.

“Why can’t they tell me anything? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Tonya, frustration in her voice. “The county is just protecting itself. They could kill people in there, and we’d have no way of figuring it out.”

Jail officials have adamantly maintained that Tonya, and any other family members of any of the men who killed themselves in jail, will get no medical or psychiatric information from them without going to court.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Terry Francke, an attorney with the California First Amendment Coalition.

Medical privacy laws may protect individuals, even dead ones, from having their histories poked around in by snooping reporters and other members of the general public. But the laws don’t prevent that information from being disclosed to the family. In fact, said Francke, “They’re entitled to it.”

Unfortunately, said Francke, it’s not unusual for agencies like the Sheriff’s Department to shut out the family in order to protect itself.

“When there is a death in custody attributed to suicide, one of the assumptions a jailing authority often makes is that there will be litigation. A common response is to shut off information to the family so as not to help them out with any lawsuit.”

Ironically, said Francke, this approach often backfires. “In fact, this response often provokes litigation when being candid with the family could satisfy them.” And naturally, said Francke, taxpayers will foot the bill as the agency fights in court to maintain secrecy.

And some of the families have been provoked enough to sue. Abdollahi’s has. So has the father of Julian Provencher, the most recent (as of press time) jail suicide.

Provencher hanged himself on May 14, becoming the fifth inmate to kill himself in as many months. When the SN&R asked Sergeant Lewis whether Provencher had a history of mental illness he said no.

That turned out to be not quite true. Provencher, in fact, had a long history of mental problems, including a “paranoid disorder.” But jail officials said nothing in his behavior in the jail indicated he was a suicide risk.

Clinkenbeard, however, maintains that Provencher’s history was right at his jailers’ fingertips, in the Jail Information Management System database, had they cared to look. The Provencher case has increased speculation about the medical and psychiatric care in the jail. Clinkenbeard and other attorneys who spoke to the SN&R said these services are notoriously inadequate.

“One of the most common complaints I hear is about how hard it is to get medical help in the jail,” said Clinkenbeard.

Remember Michael Goddard? He told the SN&R that he was injured when a jail transport van came to a sudden stop, throwing him face-first to the floorboards, his hands cuffed behind his back and useless to break his fall. Despite the constant pain in his back, he said, he has been unable to get any medical treatment.

Then there is Mychael Myles. Myles’ wife, Shannon, called the SN&R to complain that for over a month Myles has not received an anti-depressant that he was prescribed before being incarcerated. His jailers have also failed to provide his blood pressure medication, she said, despite numerous “kites”—jailhouse slang for request forms—and several calls from her to jail officials.

“He’s getting worse. He’s crying every day I talk to him on the phone. Does someone have to be suicidal to get attention?”

One inmate, Matthew Cramer, said he has sent more than 80 kites requesting medical attention since he arrived in the county jail two months ago. Cramer said he’s supposed to be getting medication for bipolar disorder, and that he also has an untreated stomach ulcer.

“They tell you ‘Don’t push the [emergency] button unless you’re dying. And if you were dying you wouldn’t be able to push the button. So don’t push the button,’ ” said Cramer.

Nikolay Soltys’ suicide may not have garnered much sympathy, but it did raise questions about jail conditions.

When asked about what happens when inmates push the button, Sergeant Lewis quipped, “Actually we tell them we’re going to come in and mow them down with machine guns if they don’t lay off the button.”

Then he explained, more earnestly, that officers are quite adamant about not pushing the button if it is not an urgent situation. With such a large (2,200 inmates) and at times difficult population, said Lewis, excessive button pushing is a strain on the staff as well as a safety issue. He added that inmates might be punished with anything from a verbal warning, to a special diet, known to inmates as “loaf”—basically, leftovers of all sorts pureed together in a blender and then baked—to being put in isolation, kept in the cell for 23 hours a day with no visitation or phone privileges.

Some insiders think any investigation into jail conditions should look more closely at the county’s Correctional Health Department, which is responsible for inmates’ medical care.

Of the current and former correctional health employees who spoke with the SN&R, none wanted to be quoted for attribution for fear of losing their jobs. Several noted some political turmoil and a high turnover rate in the department over the past year. One said department morale is low, and that intake nurses are often inexperienced registry nurses, and not properly trained for dealing with an inmate population.

“Those of us who do care feel awful about what is happening,” the source said.

Tommy Clinkenbeard said he has asked the Grand Jury to look into the services provided by Correctional Health as well as the Psychiatric Services Department, both of which are independent agencies from the Sheriff’s Department.

Jail officials, meanwhile, have been conducting their own investigation into the rash of suicides. Sergeant Lewis said that a number of improvements are already underway to bolster jail procedures. He said the jail was looking at ways to improve screening of inmates to determine who may be at risk for suicide, and that jail staff has already gone through additional training in psychiatric issues. He added that the department is looking at increasing the frequency of regular floor checks of inmates, which are now supposed to occur at least once an hour.

“We’re trying everything we can,” remarked Lewis, adding that the suicides are being taken very seriously. “One suicide is too many. I don’t want to have to wake up in the morning and have to talk about another one.”

Lewis also said that all the attention focused on the recent suicides, and the media’s interest in particular, has only made matters worse, and jail psychiatric staff has struggled to keep up with a surge of suicide threats among inmates.

The Sheriff’s Department has hired an outside consultant, the Massachusetts-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, to review jail policies and conditions. The report should be delivered any day, but Lewis said he did not know when, if ever, the report would be released to the public.

Near the end of May, nearly four months after Jake’s death, the Coroner’s Office released its final report and autopsy in the Summers case.

It confirmed what Tonya knew, but what the Sheriff’s Department wouldn’t confirm—that Jake had not been checked on for over two hours before he died, a clear violation of jail policy.

Sergeant Lewis acknowledged the breech, but dismissed it.

“Is that what caused his death? Absolutely not.” He then explained that Summers could easily have killed himself within a few minutes of the last hourly inmate count, even after writing a lengthy suicide note.

When asked if any individual officers faced discipline for failing to properly check on Summers, Lewis said that a personnel administrative investigation was underway, but that he could not disclose what discipline, if any, was being handed out. He added that such discipline could range from a verbal warning to termination.

The autopsy notes no visual evidence of medication in Jake’s stomach, and also includes a toxicology report that indicates Summers did not have any illegal drugs in his blood. What the toxicology does not show is whether Summers had any legal, prescription drugs in his system because those weren’t tested for. Deputy Coroner Kim Burson, said the toxicology screening was routine, and there was no reason to order a more comprehensive test.

But given the role that prescription drugs, or lack of medication, may have played in Jake Summers’ suicide, Tonya is troubled that they weren’t checked for. Ironically, the Correctional Health Department, the agency responsible for Jake’s medical needs, and the Coroner’s Office, the agency responsible for investigating his death, are both run by the same person, County Coroner Paul Smith. Critics have said the arrangement is a blatant conflict of interest [see “Dead Wrong” SN&R Cover, March 14].

The families of the suicide victims are not the only ones who have had trouble getting information about the jail’s conditions. SN&R requests for a tour of the jail were denied. Requests for interviews with top jail officials, Sheriff Lou Blanas and Jail Commander James Cooper, were declined. After much haranguing, and even a plea for help from local County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, the Sheriff’s Department did agree to allow a reporter to see a single jail cell, and along the way to glean whatever possible from the quick walk through of the floor from the elevator. One of the pictures from that cell appears here, courtesy of a department photographer.

From the documents that the Sheriff’s Department released, the SN&R was able to find the name of James Wyne, a 72-year-old South Sacramento man who was briefly Jake Summers’ cellmate.

Wyne was actually released the morning of February 8, hours before Summers died. But he remembered Jake was suffering from withdrawal. Wyne says he gave Summers candy and fruit that he had saved up, to help Jake with the cravings. Wyne said Jake was uncomfortable, but at that time not screaming for medication or unraveling. “Maybe it hadn’t gotten too bad then,” wondered Wyne, adding that Jake was optimistic about getting off heroin. “We both thought when he got out that he would get into some kind of program,” he recalled.

But Wyne said Summers definitely wasn’t on any medication during their time as cellmates. When he heard, from the reporter, that Summers had died, he said, “Oh my. I’m so sorry to hear that. He was a nice young man.”

Wyne’s account sheds some light on Jake’s circumstances, but not much by itself. It seems clear to Tonya Summers that, despite the Sheriff’s Department claim that he was under medical supervision, he was in danger and nobody helped him. Perhaps nobody knew, because he never told anybody, although Tonya thinks he would have asked for help. Perhaps he did, perhaps he pushed the button but nothing happened.

Perhaps Jake would be in a rehabilitation program right now if he hadn’t committed a stupid, petty crime that landed him in jail. Perhaps he would be alive if his older sister hadn’t intervened, insisting that he stay in jail for his own good, an act Tonya says she now deeply regrets. But she believes that his jailers’ neglect was at least partly to blame for her brother’s death. When Jake needed help, and she wasn’t there to give it, she says “they stuck him in a cell and forgot about him.”