A high-profile murder suspect who committed suicide Wednesday at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center was the third inmate to hang himself inside the lockup in the past two months.
The Sheriff's Office did not notify the media about the first two suicides. It released information on the death of Jatory Evans, the 29-year-old who hanged himself Wednesday, only when reporters started asking questions.
Evans was awaiting trial on charges that he killed his pregnant girlfriend as well as her parents and torched their home in Old Jefferson.
Recently sworn-in Sheriff Joseph Lopinto said Thursday he has ordered a review of jailhouse protocols and will ask the parish government to examine whether the design of the lockup can be altered to improve deputies' ability to supervise inmates.
"I don't want anybody to die in my jail, whether at their own hands or the hands of somebody else," Lopinto said. "We can do a few things to make more frequent roll calls. I do have measures in place to try to prevent this."
But criminal defense attorneys and inmate advocates say they are alarmed, and that the deaths raise questions about supervision and safety inside the jail.
By comparison, the troubled Orleans Justice Center — an understaffed facility that has been subject to federal supervision for several years — has had two inmate suicides over the past year.
Lopinto attributed the string of suicides to "depression issues" among inmates and said the deaths "are not the norm" at the overcrowded facility.
Katie Schwartzmann, a New Orleans civil rights attorney, said the number of suicides "indicates that the jail and its mental health services are in serious crisis, and that immediate steps need to be taken to prevent additional deaths."
"Sheriff's deputies have an obligation to watch the people in custody and prevent harm, whether it's fights, contraband or suicide attempts," said Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center. "It is absolutely predictable that people in custody will attempt to harm themselves. It seems that the Jefferson Parish jail is not taking steps to prevent harm."
Lopinto said Evans was being housed in a "private cell" in administrative segregation when he hanged himself with a bed sheet — the same method two other inmates used to take their own lives last month, when Newell Normand was still the sheriff.
Lindsay M. Hays, a national expert on suicide prevention in jails, said three suicides in two months is "an extraordinarily high number." He said the Sheriff's Office should be reviewing its methods of screening suicidal inmates.
"It all goes back to the identification process," said Hays, project director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. "It's important for them to look at the types of questions that are asked at intake screening."
The first of the three suicides happened Aug. 4, when deputies found inmate Jerome Bell "hanging from a noose" affixed to the window grate inside a one-person cell, according to a Sheriff's Office report. Bell, 50, had recently pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and had showed "no signs of mental health problems," said his defense attorney, Miles Swanson.
Bell had some health problems, Swanson said, and also was facing some jail time in Plaquemines Parish. "He knew he wasn't going to do more than a couple months," he said.
About two weeks later, deputies found another inmate, Joshua Belcher, hanging from a bed sheet "affixed to the window grate" of his cell, according to a Sheriff's Office report. Belcher, 32, also was being housed without a cellmate. He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead two days later, the report shows.
At the time of his death, Belcher had been awaiting extradition to Florida on assault charges stemming from an incident in Jacksonville. He was depressed because the charges represented his third felony, but he had not shown signs of mental illness or talked about committing suicide, according to his father, Jimmy Belcher.
"We've got questions about it," the elder Belcher said. "He had not been convicted, and they could have thrown it out in court."
Lopinto, who took office on Aug. 31, said he is reviewing the jail's supervision policies but that it's not possible for deputies "to have eyes on these people 24 hours a day."
"The investigation will play out," he added. "If there's something wrong, we'll make changes."
The most recent suicide differed in that Evans had threatened to kill himself and, according to his attorney, had apparently been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2009, he pleaded no contest to allegations that he tried to burn a woman with a lighter while threatening to take his own life in Hammond.
Evans later served in the military, spending more than a year in Afghanistan as a sergeant with the Louisiana National Guard beginning in 2011. He returned with what he suspected was PTSD, said his lawyer, Paul Fleming.
Last year, Evans was jailed after he was accused of killing his estranged 20-year-old girlfriend, Sydney Hanson, who was seven months pregnant, and her parents, Dwayne and Samantha Hanson, in an upstairs bedroom of a home in the 4100 block of River Road.
After he was booked in those killings, Evans was under suicide watch at least once at the jail, said Fleming, a public defender. He potentially faced the death penalty if convicted of the murders.
Fleming said Evans never wavered from his claim of innocence, providing investigators with an alibi supported by cellphone records that he was in Baton Rouge with his uncle at the time of the killings. Authorities have never believed the alibi.
Dwayne Hanson's sister, Dawn Hanson, issued a statement saying Evans' death would at least spare her family from enduring "a painful trial" or "having to stare evil in the face again."
"For the past 324 days, our family has mourned the loss of our three loved ones that none of us could ever imagine our lives without, and a baby girl that we could not wait to meet," she said. "Barely a moment has gone by without tears shed for those we will never again get to talk to, laugh with or be able to hug again."
WWL-TV's Danny Monteverde contributed to this report.