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Carl Tarzwell Jr., 37, of Harrison Township hanged himself in the Macomb County Jail holding cell with a telephone cord June 20 several hours after his arrest on a warrant for allegedly failing to pay child support.

Rising lockup deaths spur plans for action

Steps taken toward prisoner protection

November 23, 2001

BY DAVID ASHENFELTER, AMY KLEIN AND BEN SCHMITT

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS

With a three-year death toll that has climbed to at least 66, metro Detroit police and sheriffs' departments and a statewide advocacy group are taking steps to prevent more prisoner deaths.

"This is a population that the public does not care enough about," said Mike Connors, a spokesman for Michigan Protection and Advocacy. The group is investigating how county jails and police lockups in metro Detroit deal with suicidal and mentally ill prisoners.

"The challenge," said Connors, "is trying to make sure that people in positions of influence and people who make policy see them as people we should care about." A Free Press investigation, published in August, found that 55 prisoners had died in metro Detroit cells since January 1998 -- many from medical neglect, foreseeable suicides and other suspicious circumstances. Most of the deaths were investigated in-house and few resulted in any discipline. Since then, the Free Press has learned of 11 more deaths.

While state legislators ponder what, if anything, should be done about prisoner deaths, some Detroit-area sheriff's and police departments are taking steps to prevent them.

The Detroit Police Department has closed its controversial lockups at police headquarters, cleaned up its aging precinct holding cells and beefed up its training programs for detention officers and supervisors to help them spot medical problems that require emergency attention. The improvements are designed to save lives and reduce lawsuits.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Department said it plans to ask a consultant to review all of its policies and procedures in hopes of reducing jail suicides. Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel said he plans to expand the county jail to house prisoners who now are kept at police department lockups around the county.

And the Ferndale Police Department, where an inmate committed suicide in January, has installed special alarm clocks to ensure that officers check on prisoners at least once an hour.

The Detroit Police Department, where 14 prisoners have died since January 1998, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations, including mistreatment of prisoners.

Prisoner deaths are costly for taxpayers. The Free Press has reported that questionable deaths since the beginning of 1998 have prompted at least 17 lawsuits that cost metro taxpayers nearly $5 million and increased the premiums that some communities pay for liability insurance.

Families of dead prisoners have complained that they routinely get the runaround when they ask police departments for information. Several have questioned the thoroughness and impartiality of investigations.

Carl Tarzwell Jr., 37, of Harrison Township hanged himself in the Macomb County Jail holding cell with a telephone cord June 20 several hours after his arrest on a warrant for allegedly failing to pay child support.