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Horn created the "close" or protective-custody program in 2005 as a way to house those inmates considered either too dangerous for the general population, or too vulnerable to other inmates because of their high-profile status or the crime they committed. For that reason, the unit is supposed to have a higher staffing level than other jail areas.
Inmates are locked in their cells up to 23 hours a day, allowed out singly for exercise, and receive an escort to other areas. They're allowed to watch television, but in plexiglass cubicles designed to prevent any physical contact with other inmates.
Out of 14,000 inmates at Rikers, 50 are currently held in protective custody, three of them involuntarily, and 19 because they are considered "predatory."
"We use close custody as a last resort when other means do not provide the requisite safety," Correction Department spokesman Morello says.
But jail observers have long objected to protective custody as an overly punitive and psychologically harmful practice. And Morales's suicide certainly raises concern that oversight of the program is not what it should be.
The Correction Department often has suicide-prevention aides on hand in the jails, but there were none in Morales's unit. Some observers suggest that the aides—who are specially trained inmates—could have acted as another set of eyes to prevent the tragedy. But the close-custody policy bans any outside inmates from entering the unit.
And some question whether it was a good idea to place Morales in such an isolated setting, given his age and the stresses weighing on him.
Teenagers are especially susceptible to mental illness in that environment, says Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School and an expert in the effects of special confinement. Indeed, Morales told people who visited him that he felt "abandoned and alone."
Grassian says that Morales had many of the major risk factors for suicide: his age, the charge he faced, the minimal support from outside, and the type of housing he was in. "This kind of thing is going to continue until people recognize that the people who end up in places like Rikers are mostly people whose emotional lives are out of control," Grassian says. "Placing them in solitary confinement is going to massively increase the chance they may commit suicide."
Monitoring an inmate, Grassian adds, doesn't mean just walking by and looking at him. "If the behavior isn't dramatically agitated and disorganized, you're not going to pick it up," he says.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Berg, a former upstate commissioner of mental health who is now a lawyer assisting Solano, says: "Putting someone in lockdown is the last thing you want to do with someone who has mental-health issues, and it's even worse for a teenager. And there is no reason for a suicide to take place in a controlled setting like a protective-custody unit in a jail."
Morello counters that inmates often request protective custody, and thus might feel more relaxed and safer than if they were in the general population. Once they are in the unit, he says, few ask to be transferred out.
Norman Seabrook, the president of the correction officers' union, said his understanding was that the officers in the unit did everything by the book.
To Seabrook, the broader issue is the decline in the number of officers staffing the jails. There are about 2,500 fewer correction officers today than there were 10 years ago, he says. It is common to have a single officer watching both wings of a unit, where there used to be two officers, he says.
"We just don't have enough correction officers in the department," he says. "I'm not attributing this death to that, but the point needs to be made. It's just a matter of time before something else happens, and people will try to blame the officers when they're being asked to work short-handed."
The PHS and DOC, Seabrook continues, could do a better job of screening inmates and making sure that they get the mental-health care they need. "The mental-health unit should be more diligent in ensuring that a 17-year-old be placed in a hospital where he can get the attention he needs," he says. "We may see signs of illness here or there, but we're not trained to do that."
In response to Seabrook, Morello says the staffing change was made by a prior commissioner. "Mr. Seabrook's comment here is irrelevant, since in this unit, there was more than one officer assigned," he says.
In general, Morello says, there are additional officers assigned to the close-custody unit. Plus inmates are screened by mental-health professionals on entry into the system and during subsequent periods as necessary. Additional consideration is given to candidates for close or protective custody. Also, chaplains visit such units on a daily basis, and, he says, correction officers are trained to observe suicidal behavior.
Some observers have questioned the practice of placing both adults and adolescents in the same close-custody housing. But Morello says that it's within the rules because the inmates have no direct contact.
Morello also argues that the age of the inmate and his placement in protective custody doesn't necessarily increase the odds of suicide. Of the last 20 suicides in the city's jails, only three were inmates 19 or younger, and two were in close custody, along with a third in punitive segregation.