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Prosecutors say state hospital wouldn't take man who died by suicide in jail

Outgoing Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe didn't mince words when describing the apparent suicide of Adam Howe in New Bedford's Ash Street jail Sunday.

"This shows that the mental health system is broken," O'Keefe said. "Particularly for those enmeshed in the criminal justice system."

O'Keefe said he requested that Howe be sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for a mental health evaluation after he was taken in to custody Friday night on charges of murdering his mother, 69-year-old Susan Howe.

Both police and emergency workers simultaneously responded to a request for a well-being check and reports of fire at Susan Howe's Truro home Friday. Police say when they arrived, Adam Howe was in the yard and responders realized that a body — believed to be of his mother — was burning in the fire. Adam Howe then locked himself in the house and was later taken into custody by the Cape Cod Regional SWAT Team.

Adam Howe expressed suicidal thoughts, O'Keefe said, so he asked for the evaluation. But Bridgewater State Hospital wouldn't admit Howe, citing the judge's order for a mental health commitment under a civil commitment law. The hospital said admissions had to be requested under another law that allows for mental health commitments for criminal defendants or those in custody.

The Department of Correction said it does not allow civil mental health commitments at Bridgewater State Hospital.

“There are protocols for emergency psychiatric hospitalizations determined by law, and the Department of Correction follows these procedures for commitments at all facilities, including Bridgewater State Hospital," DOC Spokesman Jason Dobson said in a statement.

O'Keefe believes the matter could have been cleared up. He said Howe had a history of mental health issues and the judge was willing to answer further questions, as were doctors at Cape Cod Hospital, where Howe was taken immediately after his arrest because he was having difficulty breathing. O'Keefe said Cape Cod hospital doctors agreed that Howe needed to go to a secure psychiatric facility. But because Howe was not admitted to Bridgewater, he was committed to the Ash Street jail, which is run by the Bristol County Sheriff.

Prisoners advocates say the legal obstacles could have been overcome so Howe would have gone to a mental health facility instead of a jail before he was formally arraigned. They also point to a high number of suicides in Bristol County correctional facilities.

"There was no reason to put him in a jail, which is obviously not equipped to provide the kind of services that someone in a hospital would receive," said James Pingeon, litigation director for Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. "It raises a lot of questions. Even when he was transferred to the jail, they also have the authority to send somebody to Bridgewater."

The Sheriff's office said Cape Cod Hospital cleared Howe for custody and jail officials closely monitored him.

"Despite being cleared by Cape Cod Hospital, Ash Street Jail supervisors took the proactive step and placed Mr. Howe on a security watch in which a corrections officer would visually check on him every 15 minutes," said Jonathan Darling, public information officer for the Bristol County Sheriff. "Mr. Howe was also clothed in a nylon rip-resistant smock similar to a Ferguson Safety Smock."

Yet a day after Howe was incarcerated, he was found unresponsive in his jail cell after "clogging his airways with wet toilet paper, " according to Darling. Howe was transported to St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, where he was pronounced dead.

Darling said state police are investigating and the state medical examiner is conducting an autopsy.

Related:

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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