Three detainees have died in the two and a half years since the federal government stopped overseeing the Lake County Jail: two from drug overdoses, one with COVID-19 problems, and one from a preexisting heart condition. Attorneys for the families of four of those detainees have filed lawsuits saying that correctional personnel violated their civil rights by failing to provide proper medical care and supervision to avoid their loved ones’ deaths.
The defendants refuted charges that the Lake County Jail had a history of insufficient medical staffing, inadequate acute and chronic medical treatment, insufficient suicide prevention training, and insufficient thorough suicide assessments in court documents.
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Martinez stated in a statement that a report released by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics in December 2021 found that local prisons had a death rate of 16.7 per 10,000 bookings in 2019.
“The Lake County Jail receives about 10,000 bookings each year,” he said. “We’ve had two deaths at the jail so far this year, which is less than the national average.”
According to the federal report, the rate of prison suicide fatalities in 2019 was 4.9 per 10,000. The number of people who died in jail as a result of drug or alcohol abuse was 2.6 per 10,000. According to police and the Lake County coroner’s office, a 33-year-old Lake Station man booked on April 13 was discovered unresponsive at about 12:30 a.m. on May 6 by a correctional officer conducting a routine check.
Correctional officers and jail medical staff attempted life-saving procedures and called an ambulance, but the man was pronounced dead after being transported to Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville.
According to the coroner’s office, the man died of suffocation by hanging. The man was being held at the jail on a petition to terminate his probation in a case from August 2021 in which he pled guilty to misdemeanor methamphetamine possession.
According to information released by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, two convicts committed themselves in 2021. According to court papers, a 62-year-old Lakes of the Four Seasons man named Christopher DeRisi died from asphyxia caused by hanging on March 3, 2021. According to documents, he was detained in March 2021 on domestic assault allegations.
Daniel Skonieczny, a 23-year-old Crown Point man, died of asphyxia caused by hanging in mid-September 2021, according to court papers. Skonieczny was arrested on multiple drug-related allegations on September 13, 2021. The Sheriff’s Department gave his death date as Sept. 16, 2021, and a lawsuit gave it as of Sept. 17, 2021.
The men’s deaths were the first since Lake County, former Sheriff Rogelio “Roy” Dominguez, and other county boards and officials signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice in December 2010.
The agreement was struck after federal investigators looked into a number of inmate suicides, injuries, and disease outbreaks and found in 2009 that the institution had frequently, deliberately, and continuously violated inmates’ constitutional rights by ignoring known or substantial risks of harm.
The county poured money into repairing the problems under former Sheriff John Buncich, who was convicted in a bribery conspiracy in August 2017, and the jail’s annual operational budget ballooned to more than $22 million. That money was on top of a $7.2 million compensation paid in 2012 to former convicts who said they were confined in overcrowded holding cells for weeks or months, forced to sleep on a concrete floor tainted with human excrement, and given “virtually nonexistent” medical care.
Martinez made it one of his first priorities after assuming office in 2017. He hired former Warden Michael Zenk, an experienced corrections manager who had served as the warden of federal prisons in Pennsylvania, New York, and Georgia, after a worldwide search. During an October 2018 evaluation, the Justice Department acknowledged significant improvements in the jail’s use of force and mental health standards under Zenk’s leadership.
Zenk noted at the time that understaffing concerns remained a problem at the jail, but Martinez had made steps to address the issue. In December 2019, a federal judge signed an order officially ending federal supervision. Warden Todd Wasmer, who came to Lake County after serving as warden at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska, took over for Zenk, who retired in January.
Wasmer previously worked for CoreCivic, a private prison operator, in Florida and Arizona for 14 years in a range of positions ranging from corrections officer to assistant warden.
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