Another Bristol County jail suicide sparks concern

Bristol County officials are investigating the apparent suicide of a 47-year-old inmate at the county jail in North Dartmouth, prompting renewed criticism of the jail’s management under Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.

The death of Michael Ray, of Fall River, on Saturday is the second suspected suicide this year and the 16th in Bristol County’s jail since 2006.

Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services in Boston, said Hodgson is shortchanging mental health services for inmates.

“Sheriff Hodgson prides himself on running a no-frills jail, and it shows in the lack of mental health care, the lack of programs, and an environment that’s really punitive,” she said. “This is the kind of environment that mental illness and despair thrive in.”

Hodgson called Tenneriello’s comment “reprehensible” and said his jail is not failing to address inmates’ mental health needs.

Hodgson said his mental health staff is undertaking a full review of all 16 suicides, following an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting that was published by the Boston Globe in May. He said the report is going to be completed within a few weeks.

“Mental health is doing an analysis. They’re going to look at all of them,” he said. “Is there something we could have done differently?”

The Bristol County district attorney’s office said Wednesday that Ray was found alone in his cell, hanged, on Saturday morning. He was transported to St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford and pronounced dead. Ray was awaiting trial on several charges of armed robbery and of being a habitual offender, said Gregg Miliote, spokesman for the Bristol prosecutor.

Ray had been jailed there since September 2015 and was in a general population unit, said Jonathan Darling, public information officer for the jail. The death is being investigated by State Police.

Ray’s attorney, Heath Antonio, was not available for comment. But his death adds to growing concern about suicide deaths in the Bristol County jail and across the state.

At least 43 men and women have committed suicide in county jails since 2012, more than twice the number in the state prison system over the period — even though both house roughly the same number of inmates. And while suicides in state prisons have declined in recent years, the rate of suicides in the state’s 13 county jails has doubled.

Barbara Kice, mother of a 32-year-old man who died by suicide in the jail in 2015, said the state should investigate the mounting deaths in Bristol County.

She wondered if Ray, like her son, Brandon St. Pierre, had warned people of his intentions. Before St. Pierre died, he expressed suicidal thoughts to a court psychologist, information that was relayed to court officials and the jail.

“I’m angry and I’m sad,’’ she said after hearing about Ray. “It shouldn’t be.”

Bristol County accounts for about 25 percent of suicides in Massachusetts county jails since 2006, even though it has just 13 percent of the statewide jail population.

During an interview earlier this year, Hodgson and jail superintendent Steven Souza attributed the high number of jail suicides to the opioid addiction crisis and to a lack of state money compared to other county jails. But jail officials couldn’t say how many of the inmates who recently killed themselves were addicted to drugs.

The jail in North Dartmouth operates at 300 percent of capacity, according to a report released by the state Executive Office of Public Safety.

The facility has three full-time mental health clinicians for some 1,350 inmates. Hampden County, by comparison, has 10 full-time mental health clinicians for an average of 1,433 inmates. according to the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association.

State Representative Christopher Markey, a former Bristol County prosecutor, said the state needs to assess county sheriffs’ mental health spending and services. Currently, county sheriffs receive state funds but have little state oversight.

“Every sheriff should provide [us] with how they are spending every cent. Then we can say OK, ‘What is your mental health contract? What are they required to do?’” said Markey, who now works as a defense attorney.

This story published with the Boston Globe and WGBH News. Burrell can be reached at Burrellc@bu.edu; McKim can be reached at Jenifer.mckim@necir.org. For more in this investigation, go to eye.necir.org.