Too-rough justice

Taxpayers need to know how two notorious inmates were able to escape accountability by killing themselves


For the second time in a month, an especially notorious inmate in an Ohio prison has escaped justice by killing himself in his cell. It is not an expression of sympathy for either convict to suggest that the state prison system must review both incidents carefully, and develop standards and practices that will prevent other inmates from similarly imposing their own sentences.

Last week, Ariel Castro hanged himself with a bedsheet at a prison near Columbus while he was in protective custody. Castro had served a month of a sentence of life plus 1,000 years for kidnapping and repeatedly raping and beating three young women he had held hostage in his Cleveland home for more than a decade. He accepted the term of life without parole to evade the death penalty.

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Last month, Billy Slagle hanged himself in his cell at Chillicothe Correctional Institution, just days before his scheduled execution by lethal injection. Slagle had been convicted of fatally stabbing a neighbor in Cleveland in 1987.

Few Ohioans will, or should, mourn the death of either man. But the time and nature of their deaths should not have been left to them to decide.

Gary Mohr, the director of the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has convened an internal team to review Castro’s suicide. While that investigation proceeds, the department has suspended two corrections officers with pay.

Similarly, two corrections officers who were assigned to watch Slagle on death row are on administrative leave with pay while the department examines how he was able to kill himself.

Both investigations are important, and the department must conduct them with full transparency. They should include such matters as at what point the round-the-clock suicide watch should begin for inmates awaiting execution.

Castro was held in isolation at the state facility and was supposed to be checked every half-hour. A lawyer for Castro said he had sought a medical and psychological evaluation of his client to determine his potential for suicide, which the correction department rejected. That decision ought to be part of the review of Castro’s death.

Both assessments would have greater credibility if Mr. Mohr also called on outside experts to study his department’s practices and policies related to prison suicides. A task force that is examining how the state carries out the death penalty would seem a logical candidate.

The correction department is responsible for inmates’ safety, not as a matter of coddling them, but so that the mandates of the criminal-justice system can be carried out. That’s why Ohioans need to know how Castro and Slagle were able to serve as their own executioners.