Bristol County’s new sheriff said an apparent inmate suicide at the Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth Thursday evening likely reveals a “blind spot” in his department’s procedures, and he said he intends to find out what it is and fix it. 

Paul Heroux, the former Attleboro Mayor who took office on Wednesday morning — a day before a 41-year-old New Bedford man was found to have evidently hanged himself in his cell on the first floor — said that while the previous sheriff’s administration tended to respond to inmate suicides by saying that all the best procedures were followed, he’s not satisfied that is the case here. 

“I have a different take,” Heroux said in an interview on Saturday, as the Massachusetts State Police working with the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office continued their investigation of what appears to be a suicide by hanging. “I think we have a blind spot. It’s my job to find out what the blind spot is,” Heroux said. 

Heroux said the death of the man — who according to the DA’s office had been locked up Tuesday on drug charges and was being held on $2,500 bail — would not prompt a greater sense of urgency in his examination of department procedures relating to suicide because “I’ve already had the highest level of urgency” about this. 

The death is a very early test for Heroux, who emphasized inmate suicide as an issue in his campaign against the 25-year incumbent, Thomas M. Hodgson, who consistently defended his department’s practices in the face of the relatively high incidence of suicide among inmates in county custody. 

Public records have shown that Bristol County has had the highest number of suicides of any county in the state, as there had been 23 such deaths since 2006 at both the complex in North Dartmouth and at the Ash Street Jail and Regional Lockup in New Bedford. All were pre-trial detainees, some of whom had only been locked up for a few days or as little as one day. If this most recent death is confirmed as a suicide, it would be the 24th, and also a pre-trial detainee. 

Heroux said during the campaign, and he repeated during his inaugural remarks on Tuesday evening, that he would bring in outside experts for a fresh look at operations and what his office could be doing differently, including preventing suicides. He said that process had already begun hours before the man was found by his cellmate. 

Heroux said two former colleagues from his time working in administration at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, one a former commissioner, one a former superintendent of several prisons in the state system, were visiting the complex in North Dartmouth and the Ash Street Jail on Thursday and Friday. He said they talked about suicide prevention on Thursday, and spent more time on it on Friday, hours after the latest death. 

Before he served as a state legislator and then as mayor of Attleboro, Heroux worked for about four years in administrative positions at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. He holds a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Heroux said under the office’s usual procedures in admitting a new person to the jail, the man who was found in his cell and pronounced dead at St. Luke’s Hospital shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, was not considered a suicide risk. That could mean the office has work to do on procedures that officers use to identify suicide risk, Heroux said. 

“That’s something we need to look at,” he said. “Is it sufficient? … I’m not sure what’s wrong. That something wrong is a blind spot, and I don’t know what that blind spot is … Is there a common thread between these (suicides) that we’re not seeing, or something in our procedures?”

A statement released by Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III stated the man had been arraigned on Tuesday in New Bedford District Court on charges of trafficking cocaine, two counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and two counts of conspiracy to violate drug laws. 

According to Heroux’s office, the man’s cellmate told correctional officers about a medical emergency about 7 p.m. Thursday. The sheriff’s statement said that officers and medical staff attended to the man immediately, and he was taken by ambulance to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. 

Heroux said he got the call about 8:15 Thursday night, went back to North Dartmouth and was there until about 11 p.m., following officers through the procedures conducted after a suicide. 

His office’s statement said the dead man’s cellmate and all other inmates in that housing unit were evaluated by mental health professionals and were checked again on Friday morning. The statement said the Bristol County Stress Unit, a peer support group composed of sheriff’s office security, civilian and medical staff, spent time with the officers and other staff who responded to the incident.

The District Attorney’s Office and the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office are each conducting their own investigations of the incident. The DA’s office said an autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of death. The man’s name has not yet been released.

In the statement released by his office about the apparent suicide, Heroux said the man’s death is “heart-breaking on many levels … First, I personally and we as an organization, send our condolences to this man’s family.”

Heroux said in the prepared statement that his office’s goal is “to reduce the high rate of suicide these facilities have seen over the past decade-plus. We seem to be missing something, but are going to try to find out what that is. If we assume we’re doing everything right, we cannot possibly improve. We must assume we can do better.”

Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at ahirsch@newbedfordlight.org.

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