Could inmate's deadly jump been prevented?

- When a Walton County woman with a history of drug abuse wound up dead inside the Newton County jail this summer, her daughter asked for the medical records.

She said what she discovered showed how her mom's suspected suicide and perhaps others across Georgia could have been prevented along with potentially costly lawsuits.

Linda Yearwood's death was captured by jail surveillance cameras. They showed the 50-year-old grandmother appearing to calmly estimate the height of the second floor, then walking up the steps, climbing over the railing and jumping. Yearwood landed feet first but flipped, striking her head against a metal table below. She would die the next day in a local hospital from blunt force trauma.

On the video, fellow inmates in the crowded cell block reacted in horror when they heard Yearwood hit the floor.

"Your mom's the one who climbed over that railing and jumped," I pointed out to her daughter Allison Anderson. "So why do you blame someone besides your mom?"

"Because had she gotten the help that she needed, or the proper documentation was sent with her, to the other jail, it could have all been avoided," she insisted.

And she said, Linda Yearwood would be alive today.

Over the years Walton County deputies had arrested Yearwood many times, the latest in August for a domestic dispute involving her boyfriend. Yearwood was transferred to Newton County because one of her relatives worked at the Walton County jail.

In 2015, Yearwood spent time in a Walton County cell on suicide watch. Sheriff Joe Chapman showed me the suicide cell, a dingy, padded room with a hole in the floor for the prisoner to use as a toilet. He said the room was their last resort for a troubled prisoner who could remain there for days until a doctor decided the inmate was stable enough to rejoin the general population.

Walton County hired a fulltime medical contractor for the jail. When an inmate is processed, a nurse will ask whether they are feeling suicidal. That nurse uses the inmate's answers to fill out a "SAD Persons score of Suicidal Risk." Score a six or higher and the inmate gets admitted to suicide watch.

But after her what would be her final arrest in August, Yearwood denied being suicidal. Walton County gave her a suicide risk score of 2.

"What do you think she should have gotten?" I asked her daughter.

"At least a nine."

The chart failed to circle a point for Linda being over 45 years old, two points for previous psychiatric care even though she admitted being on anti-depressants, two points for her frequent drug use, two points for an earlier attempt to kill herself. She had tried to slit her wrists in the 2015 stay here. Before the 2016 arrest, Yearwood had jumped out of her boyfriend's moving pickup. Much of that information was already known to deputies. It's unclear whether the nursing staff had access to those files.

"Just because she says she's not suicidal doesn't mean she's not," maintained Allison Anderson. She said if her mom had been classified properly, "she would be here today. She might be in a padded cell with a hole in the floor, but she'd be here today."

Sheriff Chapman agreed some questions were not circled properly, but he said the outcome would not have changed. If an inmate  seriously wanted to take their own life, he said they will figure out a way.

"We can't do it all," he complained. "We're not the saviors for the human race. We can't predict and diagnose everything with everyone out there."

But Chapman agreed jail suicides can also cost taxpayers dearly. None of the five suicides during his tenure resulted in a lawsuit, but others have across the state. The city of Doraville's insurance company paid a $2 million settlement after a man hanged himself. Jailers neglected to pay attention to the live camera feed, missing hours of him testing his makeshift noose before ultimately taking his life.

Walton County responds to each suicide by trying to stop the next one. They welded all bunks flush to the back wall after an inmate used the gap to hang himself. They removed all payphones from a holding cell after an inmate used the cord to hang himself. And a poorly-designed new jail wing requires a deputy constantly eyeball each cell because the watch tower can't see in from a distance.

"Anyone who thinks we enjoy suicides somehow or don't care about suicides, that's just totally wrong cause I'm the one who looks these mothers and fathers in the eye," sheriff Chapman pointed out. "I'm the one that tells them what's happened with their child."

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported eight suicides in local jails already this year, up from five the year before. But those are only the ones we know about. Sheriffs are not required to report jail suicides or have an outside agency investigate.

The GBI was not called for Linda Yearwood's death. Even though the medical report lists "serious suicide attempt," an internal affairs investigation by the Newton County Sheriff's Department suggested it was just as likely that Yearwood was only trying to break her leg the day she jumped so she might be released on home confinement.

An autopsy is pending. For now, her death has not been officially ruled a suicide, just one more desperate act from a woman with a history of mental issues in a place where sanity rarely finds any rest.

"You can't prevent every suicide," agreed daughter Allison. "And you can't help every single person you come across. But if there's some kind of initiative, something could be done."

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