A man found hanging in a cell at the Roanoke City Jail died Thursday, the fifth apparent suicide at the jail within three years.
Aaron Michael Wheaton was discovered about 7:07 p.m. and pronounced dead at 7:45 p.m. after staff tried lifesaving procedures, the Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Friday.
Wheaton had been booked into the jail on Sunday, said the sheriff’s office, which oversees the jail. Online court records say Wheaton, whose first name appears as Arron, had a Roanoke address.
Wheaton was arrested on a contempt of court and failure to appear charge stemming from a trespassing charge, court records show. He was being held without bond until a Sept. 17 court hearing.
Wheaton’s death marks the fifth time a person in the jail has died after being found hanging since May 2017. His death is the second this year.
“My brother was a stand-up guy,” Adrian Wheaton said in a brief phone call. “My brother would never take his own life.”
The medical examiner’s office said Friday that it did not yet have an official cause and manner of death.
In announcing Wheaton’s death, the sheriff’s office issued a separate two-page statement about suicide in the jail and steps it has taken to address mental health concerns. The jail has come under fire for its high rate of suicides, which U.S. Department of Justice statistics indicate has been more than three times the national average in recent years.
“Inmate mental health is a top concern for the Roanoke City Jail, and is an issue we are continuing to monitor and address,” the statement said.
At least two wrongful death suits are pending against the jail, online court records show. One of those involves a man who died in 2017 in the jail of a heroin overdose.
The jail had an average daily population between 533 and 571 persons between October 2018 and March 2019, according to the most immediately available statistics from the sheriff’s office.
Within the last six months, jail staff intervened successfully in 14 suicide attempts, the jail said in the statement. In that same time frame, 212 people were placed on suicide watch.
Wheaton was being housed in the general population with other inmates at the time of his hanging.
Wheaton, 36, worked as a roofer, family said. Originally from New Jersey, Wheaton and family moved to the Roanoke area in 2010 to find better work.
Adrian Wheaton decried the recent spate of deaths in the jail, but hung up when asked what his message would be to the sheriff’s office; attempts to call back were unsuccessful.
Since 2015, seven people have killed themselves in the jail. None of them were on suicide watch at the time, the sheriff’s office said in the statement. Also since 2015, the jail had “1,457 documented incidents regarding inmates being placed on suicide watch,” said the statement, which didn’t elaborate on what types of incidents.
“In direct response to these deaths, several changes to policies and procedures have been made in order to better identify and accommodate the growing incarcerated population in need of mental health treatment,” the sheriff’s office said.
In April 2018, the jail opened a mental health unit, which includes therapeutic housing and housing for people on suicide watch.
The jail said 60% of cells in specialized housing have cameras. It plans to increase that to 100% by next year.
“The Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office is always looking into improving our efforts when it comes to inmates with mental health concerns,” the statement said. “We work closely with our community partners and local medical providers to better accommodate the growing need in this specialized field.”
The sheriff’s office and Roanoke police are investigating Wheaton’s death.