An investigation found the number of inmate deaths from suicide, accident and homicide at Washoe County jail in Nevada has drastically escalated over a two-year period. The escalation has been attributed in part to staff reductions and a swap in medical contractors.
Over the last two years, 13 inmates have died in custody in Washoe County, marking a 30 percent increase on previous years, according to an 11-month investigation by the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The Washoe County jail’s in-custody death rate — a calculation used to compare deaths across jails with varying populations — jumped from 83 per 100,000 in 2014 to 643 per 100,000 in 2015. It dipped to 573 per 100,000 in 2016. That’s five times the national average, according to the most recent numbers published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Washoe County jail’s suicide rate is 5x the national average. One inmate drank so much water he killed himself. https://t.co/iLRgMaSw2c
— Brian Duggan (@brianduggan) April 5, 2017
According to the investigation, three of those men died after struggling under the weight of half a dozen deputies who had pinned them to the floor on their stomachs.
“The people you are dealing with at the jail are people who have anti-social behavior, or have chronic alcoholism or have engaged in a crime. But those crimes, for the most part, don’t carry the death penalty,” said Cal Potter, a Las Vegas lawyer who has represented many inmates, or their surviving relatives, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
One such inmate was Niko Smith who was arrested by Reno police after trying to strangle his girlfriend while high on methamphetamine. He spent 12 hours in Washoe County Jail cell before trying to hang himself. He died after his heart stopped when six deputies pinned him to the floor when they moved him to a suicide watch cell.
The coroner ruled Smith’s death “homicide by excited delirium,” a condition precipitated by drug use or mental illness in which an agitated person enters a “fatal spiral” while over-exerting himself, often during a struggle against restrains.
The same jail has seen its suicide rate triple, according to the investigation.
The investigation found the spikes in deaths coincided with a change in sheriff when Chuck Allen took office on January 1, 2015.
Sheriff Allen told the Gazette he was flummoxed by the increase in inmate deaths but attributed it to external factors such as Northern Nevada’s high suicide rate and poor access to medical care. A point reiterated by the jail’s captain.
“They aren’t getting daily medical care. A large portion of them haven’t been to a doctor in the last decade,” Washoe County Sheriff Captain Heidi Howe who is in charge of the jail said.
“When they walk in our door, they are a mess. All of the sudden we are expected, in the time it takes to walk through our threshold, to fix all of that. It is pretty challenging.”
Sheriff Allen said there have been previous spikes in suicide, referring to 2005 and 2006 when eight inmates died. But they didn’t exceed five in one year.
Apart from inmates’ health, the problems have been compounded by the Sheriff’s Office switching medical contractors twice. That led to breakdown in delivery of health care to the jail, especially for mental health and suicide prevention.
Then the jail’s medical director was termination in May 2016 when an inmate overdosed on the methadone he was prescribed.
On top jail personnel was cut since the recession leading to loss of institutional memory and practices, and suicide prevention training was stopped due to staff reductions and budget cuts.
Suicide prevention training was, however, reinstated once the Reno Gazette-Journal started its investigation.