In Our View: Inmates Must Be Protected

Local jail officials step up efforts to understand mental health issues

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What happens when the criminal justice system converges with the mental health care system? "It's not an easy question to answer," Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas said recently.

One result of that confluence of systems at the local jail -- where one-third of inmates have "special needs" -- has been an increase in suicides and deaths. "We have pledged ourselves to doing whatever we can to reduce the risk … we're working to resolve the problem," Lucas added.

Solve it they must, although the more we learn about this problem, the more challenging it becomes. As Stephanie Rice reported in Monday's Columbian, a 2010 study by the National Sheriff's Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center revealed there are three times more seriously mentally ill people incarcerated than in hospitals. This is a poor reflection on society's ability to learn about and treat the myriad of complex mental illnesses.

But from the perspective of jail officials, that is reality, so stark as to lead Sheriff's Cmdr. Mike Anderson to make this troubling observation earlier this year about jails: "Unfortunately, we've become the hotel of last resort."

A consequence of that trend has been the more than doubling of suicide attempts at the local jail since 2007. In 2011, 18 inmates attempted suicide and one died. This year, two inmates have committed suicide and a third inmate (who had bipolar disorder) died in what the local medical examiner ruled a homicide from asphyxia while the inmate was being restrained by custody officers.

A report from Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey that the jail has been "heavily impacted by special needs inmates" led county commissioners earlier this year to ask Lucas to take action. After a work session last week, several meaningful steps will be undertaken: increased efforts to identify at-risk inmates, more training for custody officers on how to handle mentally ill inmates, and greater efforts to help inmates transition back into the community after they leave the jail.

Also, it's good to see jail officials adopt a more open attitude toward community advocacy groups. "We're going to welcome (the volunteer groups)," said Ric Bishop, administrative commander at the jail. Security is always a concern when outsiders are allowed to help inmates. But Lucas and other jail officials must find ways to resolve security concerns and allow capable, trained volunteers to lend their expertise in efforts to help mentally ill inmates.

Everyone involved in this problem must agree with Bishop: "The recent tragedies in our jail are not acceptable." And we should acknowledge that challenges facing Lucas and custody officers are intensified by the strained resources during tough economic times.

There's a financial factor in this equation. Last year the county and a former medical contractor settled a lawsuit and each paid $175,000 to a family of an inmate who died at the jail. But the far greater factor is human need. Jail, theoretically, is where people go to get corrected. That requires more vigilance by officers in monitoring, treating and protecting inmates, especially those who are mentally ill.