Nine months ago Kellie Pearson was driving in Fall River when she got a frantic call from her daughter telling her to call the Bristol County jail immediately. Pearson dialed and got an officer at the jail.
“I knew,” said Pearson in a recent interview. “When she got on the phone, she's like, ‘are you driving?’ And I said, ‘I am.’ She said, ‘I need you to pull over.’ I said ‘no, no.’”
Pearson’s fiancée, Michael Ray, the father of her teenage daughter, was in that jail for 20 months, awaiting trial on charges of armed robbery.
“And I just said, “please, please tell me is, Michael, OK?’” And she said, ‘I'm sorry ma'am, he's gone.’ I just screamed this guttural scream.”
Michael Ray was the most recent suicide in the Bristol County House of Correction.
The two jails there hold 13 percent of county inmates but account for more than one-quarter of county jail suicides in Massachusetts.
Over the last dozen years, 16 inmates have killed themselves in the jails located in North Dartmouth and New Bedford. And lawsuits against Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and his department are mounting.
A state police investigation into Ray’s death -- obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting -- found that the unit’s video surveillance cameras had not been operating for a week. And that when a correctional officer went to fetch a cut-down tool from a glass case, he was so nervous he couldn’t break the glass. He ended up punching it and cutting himself before getting to Ray.
Pearson only recently learned about the state police report.
“They never told me that the cameras weren't working. They didn't tell me that they weren't monitoring him. They didn't tell me that this young officer sliced up his hands trying to free the tool to cut Michael down,” she said.
“My first reaction was, would he have been alive know, would he still be alive if they had cameras, if he had a cell mate, if they could have cut them down, would he be alive?”
No, said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.
“That would not have changed anything,” he said. “I know people are always looking for somewhere to point the blame to say there must be something wrong with their system but we have very high standards here and we're constantly looking for ways to improve.”
Hodgson’s own report on recent suicides in his jails doesn’t mention the lack of cameras or how a deputy struggled to access a tool that can sometimes save a life. Hodgson said the cameras were set up to monitor the unit hallways, not Ray’s cell.
Days after Ray hanged himself with a bedsheet on June 10, Hodgson told NECIR that he was launching a full review of all 16 suicides in his jail over the past dozen years. His study came out this January and reviewed only seven of them, including one inmate who was able to commit suicide in a special jail cell designed to prevent suicides. Inmates there wear only a tear-proof safety smock. There are no bedsheets.
But Hodgson’s report concluded that his jail staff did everything right in all cases.
Neither Hodgson nor his department’s report explained how this inmate managed to sneak a strip of bedsheet into the cell or what the cloth strip was tied to.
“Was there something left somewhere where it shouldn't have been left and the guy was able to rip it, rip a piece of sheet that you couldn't see?” said Hodgson. “I don't know. I'm speculating in this case because I don't remember exactly what the circumstances were where the person was able to get that piece.”
Hodgson blames his jail’s high suicide numbers on the opioid epidemic. His report claims that Bristol County jails detox about two-thirds more inmates than any other jail in the state. But neither his department nor the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association could point to hard numbers to back up that statement.
Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services, questions Bristol’s internal assessment.
“Any report on suicide that was authored by jail administrators: They have a vested interest in minimizing the problems,” she said. “An outside investigation is really a much tougher look.”
In January, Tenneriello helped three current inmates with mental illness file a lawsuit against Hodgson’s department, claiming they were subjected to harsh and humiliating punishment instead of getting treatment.
At least three other lawsuits from family members of inmates who killed themselves in the Bristol jails claim that Bristol county jail officials ignored inmates’ mental needs.
Dr. Jorge Veliz, the jail psychiatrist at Bristol, says his company, Correctional Psychiatric Services, is trying to improve it services. The for-profit company will get $8.4 million from the Bristol sheriff’s department this year to provide both medical and mental health services to inmates. They have million-dollar contracts with four other county sheriffs: Barnstable, Middlesex, Norfolk and Plymouth.
Veliz’s program director Beth Cheney said the inmate suicide problem is daunting.
“As long as we are dealing with what tends to be a challenged population with a whole litany of chronic disease that might be existing, along with mental illness, add on an opioid epidemic, I think that suicide crises are something that no one wants to see continue,” she said. “But we do see these things as cyclical, from time to time, over the years.”
Kellie Pearson, the fiancée of Michael Ray, is also a mental health clinician and works for a hospital in Fall River. She believes the jail and its mental health program are shortchanging inmates.
She held some of the letters that Ray wrote to her in the months before he killed himself:
“If something happens to me, I want people to know that I've been getting no help, no matter how many mental health slips I've put in,” Pearson said, sobbing.
Pearson doesn’t plan to add her name to the increasing number of plaintiffs suing the sheriff. But she wants to see big changes happen in Bristol County and how it treats inmates who are asking for help but not getting it.
NECIR interns Claire Tran and Cynthia Fernandez contributed reporting to this article.