SAN ANTONIO -- The Bexar County Jail averaged three suicide attempts a day as recently as last year, according to figures provided to the KENS 5 I-Team.

The attempts, which range from verbal threats of suicide to actual physical attempts inside jail cells, remain high even as the jail has become the national model for how to screen inmates for mental health issues.

"Jails and prisons across the United States are de facto mental institutions," Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau said during a lengthy interview last month.

sheriff pamerleau jail deaths AR
Former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau has been confirmed as U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas.
Michael Humphries

"These are the things that law enforcement deals with every single day," added the sheriff, who pointed out that more than 20 percent of inmates in the jail at any given time have a diagnosed mental illness.

Starting last July, all people arrested in Bexar County receive a mental health screening at the central magistrate's office and received another while being booked into the jail.

The added screenings come as the national suicide rate continues to rise.

People in custody are asked four questions:

1. Have you ever been seen by a doctor for mental illness?

2. Have you ever been prescribed medication for mental illness?

3. Have you, in the past, considered or tried to kill yourself?

4. Are you considering killing yourself today?

"We mirror our community, and often society doesn't realize we have a lot of challenges in our community. When those individuals, unfortunately, become part of the criminal justice system, that also causes a little bit more stress," Deputy Chief Raul Banasco said.

Banasco, the jail administrator, said he inherited a jail three years ago that needed life-saving upgrades, including safer light fixtures and beds without metal posts.

The number of inmates who have committed suicide in jail custody has dropped roughly 50 percent since Pamerleau took office in 2013, according to BCSO figures.

Despite upgrades to medical partnerships with University Hospital and surveillance improvements within the jail's mental health unit, the wellbeing of inmates remains at the forefront of county departments.

Tonie Taylor Grindle looks at pictures of her late brother
Tonie Taylor Grindle looks at pictures of her late brother

Last year, the county settled a lawsuit with the family of Tommy Taylor, who died six hours after turning himself in on misdemeanor warrants in August 2012.

Taylor's death, which happened 11 weeks before Pamerleau was elected, brought to the surface long-standing issues with screening and monitoring the jail's more than 3,000 inmates.

"I felt like they treated my brother like a dog. Put him in a kennel in a 2x4 room and left him there and never checked on him," said Taylor's older sister, Tonie Taylor Grindle.

Taylor, 30, was a recovering drug addict who had returned from rehab in Arizona on the advice of his Hays County probation officer to serve time in three Texas counties, including Bexar County.

Taylor hoped to clear out misdemeanor warrants so he could return to and complete a rehab program without the threat of being taken into custody.

Tommy and Tonie
Tommy and Tonie

Jailers found Taylor face down and unresponsive.

Hours after Taylor's death, a jail official told Grindle that her brother was separated from the other inmates and placed in an isolation cell after beginning to act "strange and weird."

A medical examiner later ruled that Taylor's death was caused by an overdose on methadone combined with heart disease.

The jailer in charge of monitoring Taylor, Ernesto Flores, was fired and later given probation for a criminal charge of tampering with a government record, after an investigation revealed Flores marked down that he had checked on Taylor even as surveillance video showed he had not.

Ernesto Flores
Ernesto Flores

"My brother never hurt anybody but himself," Grindle said. "In that time the mistakes that he made, the choices he made weren't against anybody else."