Woman pushes for change after 2019's second suicide inside Roanoke City Jail

Apparent suicide is jail's seventh in five years

By Tommy Lopez - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

ROANOKE, Va. - There’s growing scrutiny on jails and prisons in America when it comes to suicide deaths.

This comes after the apparent suicide death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein made headlines this weekend.

Natasha Harper has led many protests outside the Roanoke City Jail for more than two years and knows firsthand how devastating it is when a loved one takes his or her own life inside.

She hated hearing that another person may have turned to suicide inside the jail late last week.

Harper's stepson, 22-year-old Clifton Harper, committed suicide in the jail in 2015.

On Thursday night, Arron Wheaton died after deputies found him hanging in his cell, according to the Roanoke City Sheriff's Office.

He’d only been incarcerated for four days and was being held for trespassing and disobeying a court order.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s outraging and most importantly it’s heartbreaking,” said Harper.

Harper said the focus should be on getting inmates more access and quicker access to mental health resources and medication.

"We’re supposed to trust (Sheriff) Tim Allen and his deputies and the jail to do their job but we don’t see the results that they tell us that we are going to see,” said Harper.

The apparent suicide is the seventh in five years at the jail and the second this year. 14 other inmates have attempted suicide in the last six months.

The jail has a suicide rate of about five to six times higher than the national average, according to national statistics, which were most recently compiled for 2014. They show the national average was 50 suicide deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2014. There have been an average of 300 deaths per 100,000 inmates in the Roanoke City Jail since 2015.

Allen declined when 10 News asked to interview him for this story.

10 News got an inside look last year at a new specialty unit focusing on mental health. It takes a therapeutic approach and has increased supervision.

Additionally, more than $250,000 was invested into upgrading surveillance and the jail has increased staff to monitor cameras.

In the past, Allen has said that every inmate undergoes a risk assessment.

Harper said, despite the improvements Allen has listed, she still believes he shouldn't be sheriff. She said these tragedies are happening too often.

"Knowing what that’s like, as a family member who’s lost a child in that jail, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. 

Harper helped create a bail fund to help local families post bond.

She plans on going to city leaders and asking if they want to take action to improve conditions.

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