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SF Agencies Duck Accountability for Inmate Suicide 

Wednesday, Aug 19 2015
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On the evening of Tuesday, July 28, Alberto Carlos Petrolino was found hanging in the shower of San Francisco's County Jail Number 2. He was dead.

A 50-year-old San Francisco resident with a history of alcohol abuse, Petrolino had been in custody for less than four days, and there were numerous red flags to alert authorities to his mental instability before his suicide.

He was arrested near the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday, July 25, after his family called 911, worried he was there to jump off. The California Highway Patrol officers who arrested him claim to have informed the jail of those circumstances. Petrolino's sister says that she telephoned the Sheriff's Department, which operates the jail, every day to remind them that her brother was suicidal. And at his arraignment on Monday, Petrolino appeared so distressed that his public defender requested a psychiatric evaluation.

Despite all those warnings, Petrolino was apparently allowed to remain in the jail's general population and take a fifteen-minute shower alone.

It doesn't make sense that people in the custody of the state should be able to harm themselves, and yet, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, suicide is the leading cause of death in jails. That's in sharp contrast to prisons, where the vast majority of deaths are due to illness and the rate of suicide is much closer to that of the general population. (Overall, the U.S. suicide rate is 13 deaths per 100,000 people; in prison that goes up to 16, and in jails, all the way up to 40).

Petrolino's death is under investigation by police and the Sheriff's Department. The nature of ongoing investigations means that few people with direct knowledge will answer questions about why Petrolino wasn't hospitalized or placed in a psychiatric observation unit.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi told SF Weekly that Petrolino "was housed according to Jail Health, Jail Psych, and Classification guidelines," but wouldn't comment further. The Sheriff's Department has been quick to direct questions about the adequacy of the care Petrolino received (if he received any; his public defenders believe he never underwent the psychiatric assessment ordered by the court) to the Department of Public Health, which runs the jail's health services. DPH says it cannot comment due to the ongoing investigation. CHP washed their hands of Petrolino when they dropped him off at jail, and it's likely San Francisco's political establishment will be happy to leave the politically-toxic Sheriff holding the bag.

Whether that's an appropriate assignment of blame or not, both Mirkarimi and his opponent in the upcoming Sheriff's election, former interim Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, agree that it's inappropriate for the county jail to serve as a de facto warehouse for San Francisco's mentally ill. But that shared analysis hasn't stopped the ongoing funnelling of vulnerable people into the jails, and Mirkarimi says Mayor Ed Lee hasn't even responded to his requests to work on the issue.

In the meantime, mentally unstable people will continue to be housed in jail, and there could be more Petrolinos.

"It's a national problem," Hennessy says. "I don't see the ship turning around anytime soon."

About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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