The brother of a bipolar man who hanged himself at the Orleans Justice Center over the weekend expressed outrage Wednesday at the apparent lack of supervision inside the city’s new jail.
Wesley Tumblin said his older brother, Cleveland Tumblin, “slipped through the hands of security” despite the design of the new $150 million lockup, which is supposed to provide “direct supervision” of inmates.
“I was under the impression that he was in the new jail,” Wesley Tumblin said in an interview. “This is a jail system that’s supposed to be built so they can see anything. Where is the security at? Are (the deputies) even in there as they say they are, or are they outside (of the building)?”
Cleveland Tumblin, a 63-year-old boxing instructor who lived in Carrollton, hanged himself in a shower at the lockup Saturday and died two days later at University Medical Center.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, said the results of an autopsy were “consistent with a self-inflicted hanging” and no defensive wounds or “evidence of manual strangulation” was found.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office issued a statement saying a deputy conducting a scheduled security check Saturday “came upon Tumblin attempting to harm himself using OPSO-issued clothing.”
Tumblin, the statement added, had “proceeded through his scheduled morning activities without incident, never indicating, exhibiting or reporting an intention to harm himself. An interview with inmate Tumblin’s cellmate confirmed that Tumblin had not indicated that he had thoughts of harming himself.”
The statement said Tumblin had been assigned to general housing “based on his booking interview and a medical and mental health evaluation that is a standard part of the booking process.”
Some of those who knew Cleveland Tumblin said they were still in a state of shock.
Norris Henderson, a well-known inmate advocate who had known the man for 45 years, said, “He’s not the kind of guy who would say, ‘I’m scared to be in here.’ That’s not him.”
“ ‘Surprised’ is saying it lightly,” Henderson added.
Wesley Tumblin said he had spoken with his brother by phone March 1, a day after Cleveland Tumblin was booked on counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, illegal use of a weapon and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Wesley Tumblin said his brother acknowledged that he was looking at several years of prison time in light of his criminal record. “He knew he was looking at some time,” Wesley Tumblin said. “He said, ‘I’m gone.’ ”
Wesley Tumblin said his brother had been on medication “for years” and apparently received it at the jail “before he did what he did.”
“We don’t know whether he took it or not,” he added.
The suicide raised new concerns about staffing issues at the Orleans Justice Center, which has seen high turnover among deputies. Sheriff Marlin Gusman has cited a lack of manpower as grounds for housing hundreds of local pre-trial inmates at jails in northeastern Louisiana.
A sweeping federal consent decree aimed at improving inmate conditions in New Orleans includes a host of suicide-prevention measures. The suicide last year of another inmate, Ryan Miller, prompted U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to order the Sheriff’s Office to retrain deputies on responding to inmates who appear to be suicidal.
Tumblin’s death “is very painful evidence that progress has not been made,” said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.
Schwartzmann, whose class-action lawsuit prompted the federal consent decree, said Gusman “can no longer hide behind outdated buildings for the dangerous failures of the jail.”
“Even in a brand-new jail building, the (Sheriff’s Office’s) failures to prioritize staffing directly on housing tiers means that people at the jail are as unsafe as they ever were,” she said. “We are concerned that the lack of staffing contributed to this death.”
Gusman is expected to testify at a civil trial beginning next week over the 2011 suicide of William Goetzee, a Coast Guard employee who took his life at Orleans Parish Prison by swallowing toilet paper. A deputy assigned to watch Goetzee had left his post and was convicted of malfeasance in office.
The antiquated Orleans Parish Prison was closed last year when the new jail opened.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.