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D.C. jail officials provided misinformation about the March 31 suicide of an inmate who hanged herself while alone in a cell before a required mental-health assessment was completed. Alicia Edwards, 32, suffered from bipolar disorder, which can cause rapid swings between severe depression and mania, according to court records. She was incarcerated on March 29 after absconding from a halfway house while awaiting trial for a couple of shoplifting cases and several related charges. In an initial medical screening at the jail, Edwards was flagged for mental-health problems, but an in-depth mental-health assessment still hadn’t been done when she killed herself two days later, says Vincent Keane, president of jail health-care contractor Unity Health Care. Keane says he believes Edwards didn’t indicate any risk of suicide in the initial screening, but he wouldn’t release her medical records, which are confidential under federal law. “She was not on suicide watch or any special watch,” he says. In a March 31 press release, the D.C. Department of Corrections incorrectly stated that Edwards was being held in the jail’s mental-health unit after medical staff determined that “placement on that unit was appropriate based upon her history.” The release also said clinical staff provided around-the-clock supervision, and “inspections of the unit were conducted according to procedures” before her suicide. Corrections Department spokeswoman Beverly Young admitted to Legal Times early last week that Edwards was not under observation in the mental-health unit. In fact, she was being held alone in a cell in the intake unit because her mental-health assessment still hadn’t been completed. Young blamed jail officials for providing the inaccurate information. Both The Washington Post and The Examiner published articles last week containing the false information after interviewing Young. Young issued an updated press release late last week clarifying that Edwards had been held in the intake unit, but the new release didn’t mention the failure to complete the mental-health assessment. Elliott Queen, Edwards’ court-appointed defense attorney, says Edwards was angry about being in jail, but she was very personable and “mostly upbeat.” “It definitely caught me off guard. I’m still kind of reeling from that,” Queen says about her suicide. “I think the last thing I told her was to try to sit tight. I was going to try to work on having everything resolved [in a plea deal].” But Queen doesn’t know what happened to Edwards at the jail, where another inmate hanged himself two days before Christmas. “A lot of what goes on at the jail is still a mystery to me,” he says. Edwards had a history of not appearing for hearings at D.C. Superior Court, resulting in multiple bench warrants for her arrest and in her confinement at the Fairview halfway house on March 8. The next morning, she absconded, leaving through the basement door after providing a urine sample for a drug test. Edwards’ unauthorized departure resulted in another bench warrant, an escape charge, and her return to jail on March 29. “I got her out like three or four times, and she kept getting rearrested,” Queen says. “She left [the halfway house] when her grandmother passed. They were not going to allow her to go to the funeral, and that’s why she left.” Edwards’ family couldn’t be located for comment. At the time of her death, she faced two theft charges for shoplifting $320 worth of clothes and personal-hygiene items last year at Hechinger Mall in Northeast Washington. She also had a contempt charge for ignoring a court order to stay away from the mall and two misdemeanor charges for skipping court hearings. In a prior case in January 2006, Superior Court Judge Ann O’Regan Keary sentenced Edwards to 60 days in jail, with credit for time served, after she violated her probation for attempted possession of heroin by skipping another hearing. On the same day, a medical alert was issued from the court, informing the jail that Edwards suffered from bipolar disorder and diabetes and took several drugs, including folic acid as an alternative treatment for depression. After Edwards’ new charges, the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency completed a mental-health screening of her, resulting in a judge’s release conditions last July requiring her participation in mental-health treatment. But Edwards skipped an Aug. 7 interview with Community Connections, which provides outpatient mental-health treatment for pretrial defendants under a contract with the D.C. Mental Health Department, says department spokeswoman Phyllis Jones. The Pretrial Services Agency reported to Superior Court that Edwards was a no-show, resulting in an Aug. 21 bench warrant. She avoided arrest until March 5, when she spent three days in jail before being transferred to the halfway house. Edwards’ suicide follows the Dec. 23 suicide of Thomas Alemayehu, an Ethiopian immigrant and D.C. cab driver. Like Edwards, Alemayehu suffered from mental-health problems and was detained alone in an intake cell. He also wasn’t under suicide watch when he hanged himself. Two days before his death, a Mental Health Department psychologist found he showed no risk of suicide or any mental illness in a court-ordered mental competency screening, even though his friends and family say he suffered from obvious mental problems. There appears to be little oversight or external investigation of inmate suicides. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department conducts an initial investigation, but the case is closed when the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office rules the death a suicide, says police spokesman Sgt. Joseph Gentile. The Corrections Department then does its own investigation, even though its contractors, employees, or supervisors may be at fault. The investigation of Alemayehu’s suicide still hasn’t been completed, although it has been more than three months since his death, Young says. A new investigation into Edwards’ suicide has begun. D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), who chairs the committee overseeing the Corrections Department, didn’t respond to requests for comment last week. The department’s press release also claimed Edwards’ body was found eight minutes after the last cell check, but Young didn’t provide any documents to support that claim. Alemayehu’s body wasn’t discovered until a routine head count during a shift change on Dec. 23. “When you deal with the D.C. jail, you think the Pentagon. It’s the same beast. They will lie,” says Phil Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, which has repeatedly sued the jail for violating inmates’ rights. “Generally speaking, you won’t get straight information.” Corrections Department Director Devon Brown refused to be interviewed about the suicides of Edwards and Alemayehu. From 1995 to 2000, a court-appointed receiver oversaw medical care at the jail because of severely inadequate health-care services for inmates. Last July, the Corrections Department approved a three-year, $83 million contract with Unity Health Care to provide inmate health care and to link inmates to Unity’s local network of community health centers after their release. But Unity had no experience providing health care in a jail before winning the contract, says Keane, Unity’s president. Mental-health assessments should be completed within five days, but inmates showing a risk for suicide are seen immediately by a psychiatrist, Keane says. Most mental-health assessments are completed within 24 hours, but that didn’t happen in Edwards’ case. Keane says she was scheduled for an assessment in the evening on March 31, but she killed herself at 2:50 that afternoon. “I feel confident that even though a death has resulted, the procedures were followed, but we’ll always be looking for ways to improve,” Keane says.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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