Woman dies after hanging herself in St. Tammany Parish jail

A woman who was being booked into St. Tammany Parish Jail for failing to pay court costs died Monday after hanging herself in a holding cell Friday night, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office said.

The Sheriff’s Office would not identify the woman, who lived in Lacombe. She was taken off life support on Monday at her family’s request, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The court costs were connected to a 2009 second-degree battery arrest.

The woman was alone in a holding cell within the jail’s booking area and had given no indication of suicidal intentions during an initial medical screening, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release.

Deputies discovered the woman hanging in her cell at 8:45 p.m. and summoned jail medical personnel.

Acadian Ambulance was dispatched to the jail at 8:46 p.m. and arrived at 8:52 p.m. to transport the woman to St. Tammany Parish Hospital.

The woman used the telephone cord from a phone in the cell to hang herself, Sgt. Sean Beavers said.

An internal review of the incident is ongoing.

The last suicide at the jail happened on Nov. 20, 2009, but a year ago, the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division issued a report that was critical of the jail’s handling of mentally ill and suicidal inmates.

The report, which followed a 16-month review, especially took issue with the use of so-called squirrel cages — cells that were 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 7 feet tall — to hold prisoners who expressed suicidal intentions.

Among the problems with mental health care identified by federal inspectors was inadequate screening, which the report found was too often cursory or done by untrained licensed practical nurses.

The Sheriff’s Office defended its procedures, with Sheriff Jack Strain pointing to the fact that only two suicides and two suicide attempts had been made at the jail in the past five years, according a Times-Picayune account last year.

The Sheriff’s Office reported a number of changes following the federal inspection, including discontinuing the use of the squirrel cages and the construction of five suicide-resistant cells, according to the Justice Department’s report.

Still, the department ended its letter to parish officials with a long list of recommended steps to improve mental health care.