A Lebanon woman is expressing concerns about the Wilson County Jail’s mental health policies after an inmate’s suicide attempt on Friday left him on life support and declared brain dead.
The man, who has since died, had been in jail for approximately a week on a violation of probation charge and was being kept in temporary isolation for 14 days as a COVID-19 precaution. Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan said the victim attempted to hang himself with a bed sheet and was cut free and given CPR before being transported to the hospital.
The Democrat does not typically name suicide victims. The man’s girlfriend, Chesney Kellow, said he was diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions and had previously informed corrections officers of them. She also said he had attempted suicide in November.
“I have been to jail with him before, and you have to answer all these intake questions,” she said. “He tells them he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, split personality disorder and manic depression, and they know he had made a suicide attempt in November.”
Bryan said nothing during the intake process flagged the man for mental illness, and that officers did not observe any at-risk behavior before the incident. He said the man was being housed without a cellmate in the jail’s isolation pod as part of the jail’s effort to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak inside the facility.
“Upon intake, they are going into an isolated area for a period of time, and they’re out for their allotted time in the day room one at a time,” he said. “They’re probably out for three or four hours a day at the most because the pod is so full.”
Bryan said inmates with identified mental health risks are typically assigned to the jail’s medical unit and are monitored.
“They do also consider the mental health aspect for those in isolation,” Bryan said. “We’re mandated by the state the time frame we’re required to check on inmates … it has to be every hour, but we generally do it more frequently. This particular inmate was last observed about 25 minutes prior to the incident.”
According to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network’s latest data, Wilson County’s suicide rate was 16.1 people per 100,000 as of 2017, compared to the 14.0 national average the same year. The World Health Organization has also identified inmates as a high-risk group for suicide, particularly pre-trial detainees.
Bryan said the sheriff’s office aims to keep that number down and that corrections officers will often have conversations with inmates in isolation to maintain a sense of connection. He estimated that the last time officers had to respond to a suicide or attempt in the jail was two months ago or more.
“Our officers did everything they could to save this person’s life,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, because they’re the ones most affected by this.”
The jail also has a policy in place to contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in the event of a suicide or attempt. The TBI confirmed that it is still investigating the case as of Wednesday and did not release any further information.