DICK BAYNTON: Roanoke City Jail: Self-Imposed Death Sentences

Dick Baynton

One of our readers of this column sent an E-Mail message recently pointing out that the Roanoke City Jail was reportedly where an inordinate number of inmate suicides were taking place. Today’s column is based on media broadcasts and publications of The Roanoke Times, WFIR, WSLS-CH 10 and WDBJ-7.

A man named Sean Michael Lovelace, 43, was involved in a standoff with law enforcement at The Starlight Motel in May of 2014. Taken into custody and arrested on May 14th of that year, Lovelace was indicted by a Roanoke grand jury for gun possession, brandishing a gun and discharging it in public and having possession of ammunition.

Lovelace had been listed as a sex offender since 2001. His trial was set for October 21, 2014 but two weeks before that date, he was found unresponsive around 4 AM during a routine cell check. Although he was given first aid, he was pronounced dead at a hospital later that morning.

A resident of the Starlight, Lovelace told management that he was a military veteran yet a police investigation provided no evidence of military duty. Although he was examined for physical or mental deficiency due to reported threats of harming himself there were apparently no reports of unusual outbursts and thus he was not placed on suicide watch. Inmates who are at risk of harming themselves are placed in cells where no dangerous objects are present according to a jail spokesperson.

According to comments by Roanoke and New River jail authorities, there are cameras strategically placed for monitoring. Clothes and belongings are removed and replaced by a ‘modesty smock’ that resists being torn. Suicide-prone inmates are subject to cell-checks every 15 minutes. The Roanoke City Jail takes in 10,000 inmates each year and has a daily average population of about 560.

Reported on Monday, October 12th, 2015, an inmate was found dead in his Roanoke City jail cell Sunday evening. The man was Stephen Patrick Haga and was found hanging by a bedsheet and was pronounced dead by EMS shortly after their arrival. Haga, 26, was convicted on September 10th, 2015 and was serving a sentence of 14 years.

Clifton Antonio Harper, age 22, died on December 8th, 2015 in a hospital after finding the inmate hanging in a bedsheet and unresponsive on Monday, December 7th. Harper had been arrested on March 17th, 2015 on charges of burglary, larceny and assault.

In late September, a rally was held outside the Roanoke City Jail to protest the number of deaths over the past several years. A statement from the office of Roanoke City Sheriff Tim Allen said this, “It is the constitutional right of an individual to peacefully protest any cause they feel necessary. The Roanoke City Jail continues to be sensitive to the family members and friends of the individuals impacted by these events.”

Those who have been victims of suicide and in-custody death since August 6th, 2014 are as follows: Sean Michael Lovelace, Stephen Anthony Haga, Clifton Antonio Harper, Jessica Corinne Carter, Roy Wayne Foley, Phillip Justin Meadows, and Joshua Mathew Jones.

In order to stamp out deaths by jail and prison inmates critical steps of action could be added to the currently available resources. Could family members be invited to jails to talk convincingly about a positive future with their loved ones? There are religious groups that focus on inmate counseling; could that program be ramped up?

Every life is precious but when a person becomes despondent and bereft of wholesome alternatives, even a professional psychologist may not be capable of unraveling the twisted mind of an inmate. The safest measure of all is the family unit that inspires all its members to avoid becoming inmates.

Of the seven inmates that have died since 2013, five of the suicide victims died by hanging. Statistics show that our 162 per 100,000 inmates is about triple the national average of about 50 self-imposed deaths of inmates per 100,000 in local jails. In the four years since Tim Allen was elected Sheriff in 2013, there have been seven deaths at the Roanoke City Jail; there was just one death in the preceding four years. What has changed since Allen took charge at the Roanoke City Jail? The families of the deceased and our citizens deserve answers.

Dick Baynton