A Death in the Jail
A lawsuit follows Alan Halloway's suicide in the GT County Jail just as officials consider building a new facility
By Patrick Sullivan | Feb. 24, 2018
Attorneys for the family of a man who took his own life in the Grand Traverse County Jail want answers. They’re asking how it’s possible that an inmate — one who’d just been taken off suicide watch — could be left alone for hours with the means to accomplish the lethal act.
The attorneys of Alan Halloway’s parents have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the county. They claim that the sheriff’s department failed to turn over details about the 41-year-old’s death, and they’re seeking records that would deliver some — namely, surveillance video footage from Halloway’s cell, emails sent between Sheriff Thomas Bensley and other officials following the discovery of Halloway’s body, and the names of other inmates who were bunked nearby.
So far, attorney Jesse Williams’ FOIA demands have been stonewalled. Bensley and attorneys for the county have maintained that those records are exempt from disclosure under FOIA because releasing that information would disclose security features of the jail, expose heat-of-the-moment discourse between officials, and intrude on the privacy of prisoners.
The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in June, and its filing suggests a prelude to a bigger lawsuit, likely that of wrongful death or similar case.
Meanwhile, county commissioners are readying for another jail-related fight. They’re preparing a second push to generate public support and develop a plan for the construction of all-new jail facility — one estimated to cost between $30 and $50-million — that would replace the 54-year-old jail on Washington Street in Traverse City.
"The Opposite of Suicide Resistant"
Eric VanDussen, manager of Williams’ law office, said sheriff’s officials have known for years that the jail is unsafe and is an environment rife for suicide, and yet they have not taken steps to mitigate those conditions.
“They were absolutely put on notice, there was a Power Point, it was reiterated in the final report,” VanDussen said.
VanDussen refers to a 2014 study of the jail that determined the facility offered too many chances for inmates to kill themselves and that its conditions darkened the state of mentally ill inmates.
That report was generated after Bensley requested a jail assessment from the National Institute of Corrections in a lead-up to asking county taxpayers to approve a new jail amid concerns of jail overcrowding.
The 2014 assessment of the jail was not entirely critical of the existing facility.
The consultants, nationally recognized corrections experts Mark Goldman and Jim Robertson, praised the management of the jail, its cleanliness, and how well maintained the facility appeared. They also praised measures taken by the courts to manage the jail population through community corrections and specialty courts like sobriety court, mental illness court, and domestic violence court.
“You would definitely need a lot more beds if you didn’t have the specialty courts and community corrections,” Goldman told officials at a meeting that June.
On the other hand, they also noted that the jail was an inhospitable place for people with mental illness.
Goldman recommended a series of measures that, in order to enact, would likely require a new facility. He noted that mentally ill inmates need direct supervision, natural light and colors, and access to an actual outdoor, secure area.
“Yes, it’s not a Holiday Inn, but we need to treat people humanely or they can get worse in a place like this,” Goldman said.
Another red flag Goldman noted in his talk were features in the jail that he called “the opposite of suicide resistant.”
“It’s good that you have all the cameras, and you’ve had relatively few suicides, but there’s many, many opportunities in virtually all parts of the housing units for inmates if they want to hang themselves to do that,” Goldman said.
The experts also said jail staff rely too heavily on surveillance cameras rather than direct observation, and that corrections staff monitoring the cameras were called upon to perform other responsibilities, like answering telephones, that took their eyes away from the camera feeds.
Caught on Camera
Halloway's death was captured on surveillance camera, but it went unnoticed at the time.
Surveillance video shows Halloway methodically create a noose of jail-issued socks, tie that around a bar through the food slot in his cell door, secure the noose around his neck, and hang himself, according descriptions of the video in police reports.
Halloway had been in jail since July 18, the day he shot a 46-year-old man in what investigators determined was an attempted murder.
When Halloway arrived in jail on that Tuesday, he was no stranger to the place — he’d been there on numerous occasions over the years, having been charged in the past with drunk driving, impaired driving, driving without insurance, and assault of a police officer.
Initially, he was placed on suicide watch because of comments he made while being booked, according to the Michigan Sheriff’s Association investigation report. Halloway had threatened to harm himself and was taken to Munson Medical Center before jail because he had taken a dangerous dose of Valium.
On the next morning, Halloway was placed on “officer caution” status due to the nature of his crime and his “individual demeanor,” meaning that corrections officers would limit direct contact with him.
Later that morning, Halloway met with a Northern Lakes Community Mental Health employee who cleared him to be taken off suicide watch.
That afternoon, Halloway was taken from his observation cell and led to cell No. 109, where he was left alone near the end of a dead-end hallway.
The next day, July 20, Halloway was video-arraigned on charges of attempted murder, felony firearm, and carrying a concealed weapon. He was ordered held on $1 million bond. When he his attorney, James Hunt, visited Halloway later that morning, the two spoke through the cell door’s food slot.
The investigators described in detail what Halloway could be seen doing in his cell in the evening of July 21 as he prepared to take his life. He was interrupted at 9:11pm by a nurse who watched him as he ingested medicine.
Minutes later, after the nurse left and Halloway had re-attached the socks to the bar outside his cell, he could be seen convulsing, then his body went still. Halloway, who in life was known as a talented tattoo artist, lay dead in his cell and wasn’t discovered until a guard checked on him at 12:07am.
Two corrections officers lost their job following Halloway’s death. One was fired; the other quit.
While the investigators found that protocol was followed with regard to Halloway’s intake and classification as a prisoner, there were lapses in cell checks and record keeping, according to the report.
They wrote: “… Investigators determine there to be no clear consensus by jail staff on departmental policies for both jail operations and cell checks as required by department policies and directives.”
The report was turned over to a special prosecutor to consider whether to bring any charges.
Left for Dead
David Barber, the man whom Halloway attacked, believes that lost in the discussion of Halloway’s suicide is the horrible nature of the crime he committed.
Barber said Halloway — who had been Barber’s close friend for years — was deranged on the day of his crime because he wanted to date Barber’s girlfriend, a woman who he had met a handful of times but who had not reciprocated interest. Barber said he had arrived at his girlfriend’s sister’s apartment to find Halloway there, drunk and high on drugs, and Halloway insisted they go outside.
Halloway took Barber behind the apartment building.
“I went back there, and he just started screaming and hollering and spitting,” Barber said.
He said he attempted to talk Halloway down so that they could settle things when Halloway was sober, but Halloway insisted they were going to have it out. Barber said Halloway physically attacked him, so he put Halloway in a headlock.
That’s when the gun came out. Holloway shot Barber in the shoulder and then fired another bullet, which grazed Barber’s cheek. Halloway was attempting to shoot him again when Barber punched the gun and forced Halloway to miss.
Barber said he believes that caused the .22 Ruger to jam.
“The gun jammed. I wouldn’t be talking to you today if the gun didn’t jam,” he said.
They struggled some more, and Halloway pulled a knife, Barber said, intent on slitting his throat. Barber received defensive knife wounds on his arm as he fended off the knife. Barber said he believes that when Halloway slashed his arm that Halloway mistakenly assumed that Barber’s throat was was cut and left Barber to bleed to death.
Halloway fled the scene and was arrested after a standoff at his home in Grawn.
Barber spent a week in the hospital and didn’t learn that Halloway had taken his own life until after his release. He said he is sorry that Halloway died, but only because he wanted a chance to confront him about what he’d done.
Today, Barber said he still has not recovered and will require more surgeries. He said his injuries prevent him from going back to work as an auto mechanic.
“I’m without work, trying to get disability, and struggling,” he said.
He said that while Halloway’s family might be able to recover damages in his death, he is frustrated that he has no recourse to be compensated for his injuries.
Talk of a New Jail
Today, as jail deficiencies are raised in the case of Halloway’s death, county officials have returned to the topic of new jail construction.
In 2014, there was some momentum to build a new jail. The consultants who performed the study laid out a series of steps for officials to follow to lay the groundwork for figuring out whether they needed a new jail, deciding how big and what it should look like, and fostering public support for the project.
The first step officials were urged to take was to conduct a “needs assessment.”
That didn’t happen.
VanDussen said he is unaware of any changes made at the jail as a result of the findings in the report.
“I know of none, and I’ve seen no evidence that anything was done to change their practices or policies to curtail those glaring issues that were brought to their attention in 2014,” he said.
He said the county board in 2014 passed a resolution to create a criminal justice committee to look at jail issues, but they only began to follow up on it in 2017, a month before Halloway’s death.
Bensley said he was advised not to comment about anything but the criminal justice committee, which he said was in the hands of county commissioners and stalled in 2014. He said he attempted to get it going again last year, but that effort also fell away.
“Apparently everything again is on hold because, well, we don’t have an administrator,” Bensley said. “You're starting on this road, you’ve got to put one foot in front of another, and, well, that has stopped.”
Officials may have been distracted away from taking action at the jail because of other things happening in the county.
Months after the needs assessment was supposed to be set in motion, in April 2015, county commissioners voted 5-2 to oust county administrator Dave Benda in a surprise move. Five months after that, Tom Menzel was tapped as the new county administrator, ushering in a contentious period where officials bucked heads over a perceived financial crisis in the county that Menzel vowed to fix. Discussion about what to do about the jail dropped away.
Today, the jail has returned to meeting agendas.
At a December board of commissioners meeting, Bensley said he would like to see the sheriff’s department and the jail under the same roof (today, the jail is located in the downtown courthouse complex, while the sheriff’s department is housed in a former bank building on Woodmere Avenue), a measure that would almost certainly require the construction of a new facility on county-owned property on Lafranier Road in Garfield Township.
$30 Million or $50 Million?
What everyone seemed to agree upon at the meeting was that current jail conditions are dire.
Commissioner Addison “Sonny” Wheelock, who was part of the group that looked at the jail study in 2014, said conditions are almost “deplorable” in the jail, and there is heavy staff turnover.
“It's not just the type of people they have to work with,” Wheelock said at the meeting. “Because if this is your profession, you're understanding that this is the kind of people you're going to work with. But the conditions that [corrections officers] are asked to work in every day are, you know, on the verge of being deplorable.”
Commissioners debated how to proceed with the development of a jail proposal. Cheryl Gore Follette proposed skipping what she estimated would be a $50,000 consultant fee this time and instead visiting Wexford County, where officials just opened a new jail, to see what could be learned from that experience. Dan Lathrop cautioned against that, saying that he’d been through the 2014 process and learned that hiring an expert is critical to laying the groundwork for a new jail.
“They showed us several instances where people, not people but boards, went in on their own, thinking they knew what to do, and they ended up with nightmares,” Lathrop said. “We need a pro, that’s my opinion, right from the beginning.”
Follette and Lathrop also disagreed on what they projected the cost of a new jail might be.
“You can really mess this up,” Lathrop said. “It’s a $50 million building, minimum.”
Follette replied: “Well, that’s a much bigger number than what I was told — $33 or 35 is what I was told.”
Going About This Wrong
Gerald Morris, board president of Project Unity, a Traverse City-based nonprofit that helps to ease people from jail and addiction back into society, said he still works at jails in Benzie and Leelanau counties, but for two years he hasn’t been able to help inmates in Grand Traverse because he’s been told the jail lacks enough staff to enable visits from volunteer service providers.
Morris said he believes that before county commissioners set out to build a new jail, they should spend some time looking for ways to reduce the jail population.
“My position is, why don’t you try to figure out ways to keep people out of jail?” he said.
Jail Chaplain Tom Bousamra said the biggest priority at the jail should be to improve inmates’ access to mental health care.
Bousamra, a deacon ordained by the Catholic Bishop of Gaylord, realized a couple years ago that people who are apt to become inmates need a particular kind of help. He helped form a group called Before During and After Incarceration, a Traverse City-based nonprofit. The group seeks to reduce recidivism by working with offenders and their families.
Bousamra said one of the biggest problems at the Grand Traverse County Jail is the lack of services for the mentally ill. Well-intentioned corrections staff are too busy to help, and there is no full-time counsellor on staff.
He said the jail contracts with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health for a counselor to come in once a week and for two hours of psychiatric care per week for the entire jail population. That’s not enough, he said.
“They need full access to inmates to know who’s struggling and who needs assistance,” Bousamra said. “They need someone who can be in there full-time and who can prescribe psychotropic medications. … You need someone there, more than just a drive-by — that’s what I call it. It’s like drive-by mental health service.”