Six days after arrest, inmate kills himself in Miami jail


– Family photo

During an armed standoff with police in Hialeah Gardens earlier this month, Ruben Ricardo Santana threatened to shoot officers, said he “wanted a blood bath” and yelled he “didn’t care to live,” according to a police report.

Six days later, Santana hanged himself inside a Miami-Dade jail.

The Medical Examiner’s office has ruled his death a suicide by hanging, sparking questions about whether the Miami-Dade corrections department — which historically has had a long history of shoddy treatment of mentally ill inmates — properly cared for a man who so vocally expressed suicidal thoughts.

A corrections spokesman would not say whether Santana, 41, had ever been on suicide watch in the mental-health ward at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. “It’s under investigation so no further details on that inquiry at this time,” spokesman Juan Diasgranados said in an email on Monday.

Santana’s sister, Lourdes Peña, says her brother should have never been in a cell without constant supervision. She said Santana, who had a long history of mental illness and substance abuse, was likely experiencing withdrawal symptoms from meth use.

“Somebody has to be held accountable. I need answers, I need to know what happened,” Peña told the Herald on Monday night. “I know he wasn’t perfect. But he was human and what happened to him was inhumane. Nobody should die like that.”

Miami-Dade’s jail system has long been under scrutiny over its handling of mentally ill inmates, spurring the construction of a unique mental-health rehabilitation facility, which will include a crisis unit for patients, short-term housing and even a courtroom. Construction is expected to be completed in May or June.

shed boren
Camillus House CEO Shed Boren, in the black shirt, kneels down and talks to Amos Moss as Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steve Leifman (rear, in white shirt) gives a tour of a site for a new mental-health facility in Miami in this 2014 file photo. PATRICK FARRELL MIAMI HERALD STAFF

For years, the Miami-Dade Pre-Trial Detention Center’s notorious ninth-floor psychiatric unit was a national symbol of shoddy handling of mentally ill inmates. In 2011, the U.S. Dept. of Justice finished a sweeping investigation, declaring the wing “chaotic, crowded, foul-smelling, depressing and unacceptable for housing prisoners who are mentally ill or suicidal.”

Eight years ago, the main jail’s ninth-floor ward was shuttered and inmates struggling with mental illness were moved to TGK, another facility about nine miles west. The psychiatric units at TGK feature bunks and stainless steel sink-and-toilet fixtures designed to deter using them to attempt suicide. The units also feature enhanced video and staff surveillance, as well as an outdoor space for inmates to get fresh air and exercise.

On the mental-health floors, inmates generally use what are known as “Ferguson” gowns, specialized garments that can’t be used as rope for suicide. It was not made public whether Santana was ever in the mental-health unit.

A Miami-Dade police detective, Peña said, told her that Santana had been placed in an isolation cell because he tested positive for COVID-19, and later he used a bed sheet to kill himself.

Few details have been released about his death. The Miami-Dade police homicide bureau is investigating the death, which is standard for in-custody deaths in correctional facilities. The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, which had been representing Santana, did not return a request for comment.

Santana had come to the attention of Hialeah Gardens police on Jan. 9, when his sister flagged down police car to report that Santana had pointed a gun and threatened to kill her, her husband and their 10-year-old daughter.

The following day, Hialeah Gardens police detectives went to the Hialeah Gardens home of Santana, whom they knew from “past encounters.” He was standing outside with his shirt off. Running backward, he “reached into the front of his waistband grabbing a black firearm” and pointed it at officers, according to a police report.

As he barricaded himself in the home, “Ruben continued to yell that he wanted to kill police and didn’t care to live,” the report said.

After more than four hours barricaded inside the home, Santana surrendered to the Miami-Dade Police Special Response Team. He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault of a law-enforcement officer with a firearm, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Ruben Santana
Ruben Santana, 41, hanged himself in a Miami-Dade jail on Jan. 15, 2021. – Miami-Dade Police

Jail staff is required to conduct a screening to determine whether an inmate should be in a special unit. It was unclear if corrections officers reviewed his arrest report at booking.

Santana had, over decades, prior convictions for aggravated assault with a weapon, grand theft and multiple drug felonies.

His sister said Santana had been struggling with bipolar disorder and drug abuse for decades and had previously been admitted for involuntary psychiatric care under Florida’s Baker Act.

“He became lost. You don’t understand how many interventions we had and nothing would ever register,” she said. “It’s sad.”

There are numerous hot lines to call for help for those in a crisis, at an emergency stage, call 911. Broward and Miami-Dade Suicide Intervention can be reached by dialing 211. The Suicide Prevention Hotline number in Florida and nationwide is 800-273-8255.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.

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