In the first six months of this year four people died while in custody at the Bucks County Correctional Facility. Three of those deaths were suicides and one inmate died of natural causes, according to officials. Two of the deaths occurred in a single month.
The startling number of suicides has prompted questions, and in a recent wide- ranging interview at the Doylestown Township facility, David L. Kratz, the director of Bucks County Department of Corrections, offered explanations for the deaths, and discussed measures being taken to prevent them.
According the Bucks County coroner, the first death was on March 1, when Edwin Dunfee, 46, of Philadelphia, died by suicide in a hanging.
Then, on June 7, Christopher Robert, 25, of New Hope, deliberately choked on food. His death was ruled a suicide.
Those deaths were followed by two in July. On July 3, Floyd Harper, 37, died by suicide in a hanging and on July 14, Charles Hall, 50, died of natural causes.
By comparison, the jail had two suicides in 2018; one in 2019 and one in 2020.
To understand, in part, what’s behind these tragic deaths, Kratz pointed to an “unprecedented wave of addicts” arriving at the jail this year. Many, he said, are suffering from an addiction to the powerful opiod, fentanyl.
“They are in hard detox,” he said. “What once took three days, (to be cleared by medical staff for placement) now takes five to 12 days. There are a lot more medical complications. We’re sending an unprecedented number to the hospital for in-patient treatment.”
In July alone, 429 new inmates entered the jail. Most have not been sentenced and are facing misdemeanor charges, Kratz noted. “They are coming in the sickest.” Eight were “too sick to take into custody” and were transported to Doylestown Hospital. The 33 trips to the emergency room in July “were almost a year’s worth,” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.
There are 240 inmates, 56 percent of the jail’s population, who are on monitored detox, said Kratz, which means they are checked more frequently. Two hundred and thirty inmates are taking some type of psychotropic drug.
“How do you have more than 200 people with serious mental health problems and many who are truly mentally ill placed here because there are no beds for them?” asked Kratz. Norristown State Hospital, where they are sent, is for the severely mentally ill. It has 22 beds dedicated to Bucks County’s jail system. Two to five inmates are on a waiting list much of the time.
Taken together, these disturbing facts portray a correctional system straining under the weight of addicted inmates plagued with a myriad of mental and physical health disorders.
“Clearly, some can be quite despondent. Some have lost all contact with family,” Kratz said.
Adding to the challenges is the increasing age of those incarcerated, officials said. A recent review showed 38 prisoners over the age of 60 and 187, over the age of 50 at the facility. “We were really shocked,” said the director, who attributed some the change to the widespread availability of Narcan, which can prevent death from a drug overdose.
“It’s a contributing factor,” said Kratz. “It is saving lives but not necessarily getting folks into treatment.”
The director credited his officers, who routinely work mandatory overtime, as “hardworking.” They are “encouraged and trained” to report anything concerning they see on their rounds. “A lot of lives have been saved,” said Kratz, although he could not say how many. “Guards are asked to be social workers, medical professionals and prison guards. They wear so many hats.”
Asked if there were enough guards, Kratz said, “Staffing is a concern.” Asked if the shortage may be influencing the number of deaths, Kratz responded, “It’s hard to say.”
Currently, there are 210 to 220 guards at the facility.
The main building, built in 1984, houses 700 inmates and another 100 live in the men’s community correctional facility, designed for those who have been sentenced and are on work release or require minimum supervision. That was built in 1991.
The community facility has the capacity to hold 250, but only those who are sentenced and deemed “stabilized” by mental and medical health providers can be placed there. Were a prisoner not fully through the detox protocol, Kratz said, they could fall from a top bunk during a seizure or be at greater risk of attempting suicide. Even when fully detoxed, they can’t be placed in the center if they are awaiting sentencing, which 75 percent to 78 percent of inmates typically are.
Given those placement restrictions, the jail is at “full capacity” and cots are being used to accommodate the overflow of prisoners, according to the director.
Efforts to reduce the number of inmates taking their own lives are multifaceted and include trying to eliminate items that can become a ligature – a means to hang oneself. T-shirts and sheets are used, as is the waistband in underwear. These are among the items removed when a prisoner is in a “watch status.” Inmates considered at high risk are placed in an anti-suicide smock and frequently monitored.
Still, said Kratz, “Those who commit suicide are usually not someone on watch. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
For the past 18 months, officers have been using a software system called CoreTrack to monitor each inmate on their “block.” Using an iPad and a QR code on the wall outside the cell they record what time they checked the prisoner and their observations. The information is reviewed each time a new officer comes on duty and is easily accessible to all supervisors.
“The crux of good security is good touring,” said the director.
Another initiative allows family and friends to call a hotline if they are concerned an inmate might be suicidal. “That’s another layer of protection,” Kratz said. As of mid-August, the line had received 77 calls.
A new multimillion dollar, 40,000-square-foot facility on the campus is expected to open this fall, after years of planning. The majority of the building will be a section for 308 women, who are currently housed in the main jail. There will also be 25 to 30 “safe cells” that seemingly have no place to attach any material from which to hang oneself, Kratz said.
In the existing jail, there are eight “mental health” cells, designed for those under special watch. One guard is assigned to that unit. That’s the same number of such cells as when the jail was built almost 40 years ago. The county has converted 30 to 40 cells within the facility into “safe cells,” as the need has grown dramatically, said Kratz.
It’s not possible to compare Bucks County’s jail death rate with similar institutions in the state, Kratz said. That’s because the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections does not require prisons and jails to report the number of “adverse occurrences,” the term used for deaths while in custody.
“It’s an honor system,” said the director. Bucks County uses “best practices” and reports all such occurrences, he said. “We do it to be accountable.”
The federal Bureau of Justice Administration does have a mandatory reporting policy, however, he noted, there’s no enforcement.
While “one death is too many,” Kratz said, it’s also important to recognize, “When you have 4,000 to 5,000 people booked into this facility every year and they are not the healthiest of people – they are fragile folks crossing our threshold – it’s a constant battle to improve.”