NEW ORLEANS - The internal probe into the apparent jail cell suicide of 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas inside Orleans Parish Prison Monday has now expanded into a criminal investigation, according to multiple sources familiar with the inquiry.
Thomas, who was facing a second-degree murder charge, was in a wing of the prison designed to house juveniles who are being prosecuted as adults. He was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes, just one of many factors now under scrutiny, the sources said.
In a press release, the sheriff’s office stated that Thomas was found unresponsive in his cell at 9:19 p.m. Monday. The sheriff’s office said Thomas apparently used a mattress cover to hang himself, but several sources said that in addition, an Ace bandage was found around the teenager’s mouth and neck.
When asked about the bandage, Sheriff’s spokesman Phillip Stelly confirmed that it was found around his face and neck and “was immediately removed during the course of providing emergency medical treatment.”
Stelly said the Orleans Parish Coroner’s office is conducting a thorough autopsy, which will become part of the final investigative report. In addition, an attorney for the family said it will conduct an independent autopsy into Thomas’ death.
Thomas had been jailed since July 28 in connection with the shooting death of Hasahn Shawl, 24, inside an eastern New Orleans apartment. Thomas’ uncle, 34-year-old Tyrance Chancellor, also was booked in the murder and is now on suicide watch at OPP.
Prison mentor Ameer Baraka, who grew close to Thomas during jailhouse counseling visits, confirmed that Thomas had wrapped around his face and neck, although Thomas was not on suicide watch and was not prohibited from having personal items in his cell.
Baraka said he is just one of many people inside and outside the sheriff's office who are taking this death hard.
“I wailed. I weeped like a kid,” Baraka said. “I said, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean, every week he was waiting for me.”
Nia Weeks of the OPP Reform Coalition said the fact that the prison is under a sweeping consent decree – partly because of previous suicides – makes Thomas’ case urgent. It was about seven months ago, in March, that the prison had its last suicide, a 63-year-old bi-polar inmate hanged himself in a locked shower.
Cleveland Tumblin’s suicide was preventable, according to plaintiff’s attorneys in the sweeping consent decree meant to reform persistent safety and security at the prison. The slow pace of progress under Sheriff Marlin Gusman recently led U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to appoint an outside compliance director to run the prison.
Former Maryland corrections official Gary Maynard was appointed in August, but he has only been working at the jail on a daily basis for the past month, Stelly said.
“We're not even a year out from the previous suicide and obviously things haven't been put in place to keep people safe,” Weeks said.
For prison activists, the fact that a 15-year-old boy was even housed at the adult jail raises serious concerns.
“Everyone was just shocked that a child was in there in the first place,” Weeks said.
Attorney Emily Washington, of the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents OPP inmates in the consent decree lawsuit, issued a statement after Thomas’ death.
“The Sheriff has known for years that the kids in his custody are among the most vulnerable in the jail, in need of care and close supervision. Yet he has failed to keep them safe. Jaquin's death is the second completed suicide at OJC this year, and is the most recent tragedy to underscore the intolerable conditions at the jail,” she wrote.
“The Sheriff's Office has proven unable or unwilling to take aggressive measures to address the current staffing crisis and to provide the appropriate supervision for those in its custody. The Sheriff's Office and its medical provider have repeatedly failed to respond appropriately or timely to the mental health needs of those held in the jail, particularly youth.”
The Sheriff's Office said it could not comment on the latest developments in the internal investigation, except to say that it is ongoing.