BOURNE — Rob Davis lost the connection on a phone call that might have saved his son’s life.
His son, Robert F. Davis Jr., 40, was being held at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility on the night of Aug. 17, 2022. Davis Jr. had been arrested in Tewksbury the day before and brought to Orleans District Court on charges of violating a restraining order. He wrote an apology letter to his former girlfriend as part of a 12-step program in March, six months after breaking into and ransacking her Dennis home, according to court documents.
Bail was set at $500 cash, but because Davis Jr.’s case was the last of the day and his family lived over 100 miles away on the North Shore, bail could not be posted that day.
Davis Jr. called his father’s landline later that evening from the county jail in Bourne. The connection was poor, and Davis Jr. was not able to hear his dad telling him that he would bail him out the next day.
“I told him when I was coming to get him, and he’s going, ‘I can’t hear you,’ ” the father recalled. “And then it disconnected us.”
At 9 p.m., Davis Jr. called his father’s landline again. Davis was out walking his dog and missed the call.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, Aug. 18, the jail notified him that his son had been found dead in his cell at 1 a.m. He had been incarcerated for less than 24 hours.
Davis Jr.’s suicide was one of three deaths at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility this summer.
On the same day as Davis’s death, Tyler J. Gibbs, 23, another inmate at the Barnstable County jail, attempted suicide and died the next day at Falmouth Hospital. Gibbs was being held without bail on charges that he murdered his ex-girlfriend, Kiana Barrows, 20, on May 10 in Falmouth.
A correctional officer is being investigated for procedural mishandling of Gibbs’s death, said Sheriff James Cummings.
Two months earlier, on June 16, 2022, David A. Allain Jr., 30, died in his cell from a drug overdose, Cummings confirmed. He had been in jail since late February 2022 on charges of possession of narcotics with intent to distribute and attempted escape.
All three of the men were in pretrial detention and had not been convicted. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than three-quarters of the inmates in the U.S. who died by suicide from 2000 to 2019 were awaiting trial and not been convicted of a crime.
Rob Davis recognized this as a particularly alarming element of his son’s case. “We’re talking about a county jail,” he said, “where people being held still haven’t been convicted of anything. They’re innocent until proven guilty.”
Neither Davis Jr. nor Gibbs were on suicide watch or being monitored by mental health clinicians, Cummings said.
Thomas Iovieno, Tyler Gibbs’s attorney, visited Gibbs 10 days before he died. Iovieno observed Gibbs to be in good spirits. “He was looking forward to defending the case, looking forward more than looking behind,” he said. “I was shocked when I heard the news.”
Iovieno was not aware that, after his last visit to the jail, Gibbs had tested positive for Covid-19. The Barnstable County Correctional Facility maintains a unit for Covid-19 isolation where inmates are quarantined for 24 hours a day.
In fact, all three inmates were in Covid isolation units when they died. Davis Jr. was newly detained, and Allain Jr. had just returned from a court appearance. The jail’s policy is to isolate new arrivals for the first 10 days of their incarceration. Inmates who have returned from court hearings are subjected to the same 10-day Covid isolation policy.
Bonnie Tenneriello, a senior staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said that Covid protection protocols at many prisons look a lot like “restrictive housing,” also known as solitary confinement, whereby a prisoner is confined in a cell for 22 hours a day. “There is a vast difference between what restrictive housing is and what Covid isolation should look like,” Tenneriello said. “Most places do not do humane Covid isolation.”
Restrictive housing has been shown to increase the likelihood of suicide among inmates. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2019 found the effects can follow people beyond jail: people exposed to solitary confinement were 78 percent more likely to die from suicide after their release.
Solitary confinement and its danger to prisoners were addressed in the state’s Justice Reform Act of 2018. The law set limits on the number of days of confinement allowed and stipulated that inmates have access to proper food, phones, and a canteen. But Liz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services Massachusetts, said that, with little oversight, some sheriffs are violating if not the letter of the law then its intent.
“The whole point was to recognize the permanent impact of solitary confinement on a population largely suffering from mental health and substance abuse,” she said.
“There are so many proven benefits to giving incarcerated people access to phone calls,” Tenneriello added. “It’s the single most important factor to help people successfully return to their communities.”
Sheriff Candidates’ Views
State Rep. Tim Whelan, the Republican candidate seeking to replace Cummings in November, said Covid isolation is necessary to prevent outbreaks. Solitary confinement for punishment must also be allowed as a last resort for inmates who endanger themselves or others, he said. Suicide prevention in isolation units comes down to clearing cells of any tools that could be used for suicide, providing staff training in suicide prevention, and proper observation, Whelan said.
Proper observation, however, requires sufficient staffing and, right now, the Barnstable jail is trying to hire 60 correctional officers, Cummings said.
Whelan said the officers have told him “forced overtime” is common and is “burdensome.”
“I can tell you, if I am elected, my number one job will be recruiter-in-chief,” Whelan said. “It can be fixed. It is a matter of recruiting.”
But the current total of 147 correctional officers amounts to nearly one officer per inmate. The state Special Commission on Correctional Funding noted that Barnstable, Berkshire, and Franklin county jails have the highest ratio of correctional officers to inmates in the state.
The Barnstable County Correctional Facility’s inmate population is down to 174 in a jail built for 588. Yet Cummings’s budget has not gone down in years.
Whelan, who served on a commission in 2021 that studied sheriff budgets statewide, said all the county jails have fewer inmates than usual, but it is too early to determine if that is because judges are imposing less jail time due to Covid or if there are other factors. So, the commission recommended delaying reductions in sheriffs’ budgets for three to five years.
Donna Buckley, the Democrat running for sheriff, said Covid protocols are necessary and solitary must be used at times. But a lack of staffing is not an excuse, she added.
“Much-needed correctional staff should not be offline to train as municipal police officers or to operate a marine unit,” she said. “Mental health spending needs to be more than the current 1.7 percent of the budget. Our Covid protocols should not come at the cost of inmate safety.”
Cummings said the three recent deaths don’t reflect the full picture.
“From 2017 to 2022 we had 63 saves where the staff saved folks who were trying to commit suicide,” Cummings said. “When someone is successful, that’s the rare occasion inside the correctional facility.”
Cummings admits, however, that the conditions at his and other jails are what lead inmates to suicide in the first place. “It’s almost the perfect atmosphere for someone to do something reckless like that,” he said.