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Suicidal LA jail inmate, later found dead, was left alone for hours

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles houses many of the county's mentally ill jail inmates.

Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies assigned to check on a suicidal Twin Towers inmate left him alone for nearly three hours, according to county records, in violation of department protocol. When deputies did check Li Zhu’s cell, they found him dead, having strangled himself with a piece of his mattress.

An autopsy report by the L.A. County Coroner’s Department says Zhu, 68, was arrested on January 8 on suspicion of murdering his daughter-in-law, Xiaolin Li. The Arcadia police department arrested Li Zhu after finding Li Xiaolin stabbed to death, in an apartment where the two lived, along with a number of family members.

When he arrived in L.A. County’s jail system, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department placed Zhu on suicide watch in a Twin Towers cell due to having attempted “suicide in China during the late 1990’s by jumping off a building… and also telling family members that he did not want to live anymore after the assault on his daughter-in-law.”

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Deputies are supposed to check on inmates on suicide watch every 15 minutes. The last reported check on Zhu, according to the coroner’s report, was at 6:46pm He was found dead at 9:30pm when a deputy attending to an inmate in a neighboring cell noticed Zhu sitting at an odd angle on the floor. A surveillance video viewed later showed him last walking around his cell at 8:18pm.

According to the coroner’s report, Zhu had torn off a strip of the side trim seam from his mattress, created a noose, and strangled himself by attaching the noose to the bed. There was blood on the floor and Zhu had an open bite mark and bruises on his arms. No suicide note was found.

Suicide watch protocols in L.A. County’s jails stem from an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice the county entered into in the late 1990’s, after federal inspectors found “constitutional deficiencies” in the jails. Allegations included use of excessive force on mentally ill inmates, inadequate mental health screening, and inadequate suicide prevention.

As part of the agreement, the county agreed to “provide for fifteen minute suicide watch” checks, which could be increased to every five minutes, if needed.

Zhu’s death comes after a year of high suicide numbers in L.A.’s jails, said ACLU Legal Director Peter Eliasberg. In 2013, the jails experienced 10 suicides.

“Certainly failure to do proper suicide checks in a significant cause in any jail or prison where there are too many suicides, but there are a lot of things,” Eliasberg said. “You just wonder, why does this keep going on.”

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who runs L.A.’s jails, said the circumstances of Zhu’s suicide are currently under investigation, and the sheriff’s department won’t be able to comment in depth on his death until that investigation is complete.

In-custody deaths are investigated by the internal affairs department and reviewed by the outside Office of Independent Review.

“However, it appears that several of our practices were not followed in that situation,” McDonald said of Zhu’s death.

Calls to Zhu’s family were not returned.