Inmate orientation video aims to prevent jail suicides

Effort follows rash of deaths at Clark County facility

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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The Clark County Jail will produce an inmate orientation video as part of its sweeping reform to prevent suicide at the facility.

The video is just one part of a bigger plan to help keep inmates safe during a period that Clark County Sheriff’s Commander Ric Bishop describes as “a traumatic experience for most people.”

“Being arrested is traumatic,” Bishop said. “You go into an intake area where your personal items have been taken. Then you go into an area with 20 other people. During that period, giving someone something to read isn’t going to be very effective, especially if you are, say, impaired.”

Impaired or not, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office believes a video explaining the jail rules will be more effective than the text in the current inmate handbook. A video is more easily digestible for many, and it would be a more effective use of time. Currently, as inmates are being processed, they sit in an intake area watching television to keep them preoccupied.

“Some of it will say: ‘Here’s the rules, and here’s what you can expect,’ ” Bishop said. “But part of that video is going to address how to handle if someone is talking about harming themselves.”

The video will explain how to identify suicidal and self-harming behaviors in others. It will also explain to new inmates how to diagnose their own danger as they are going through the transition into the jail.

This is a critically important step in the jail’s attempt to abate suicide. In August, the sheriff’s office made a pledge to reorganize after a six-month period that brought four suicides.

Earlier this year, Clark County commissioners approved a $545,000 expenditure to help make that happen.

Physical work included jail modifications such as replacing all shower heads and protruding fire sprinklers to stymie suicide attempts.

But the jail also took a look at its programming side as well. That includes changes such as the video, which the county will pay Clark-Vancouver Television to help create.

Some work, such as welding shut exposed security bars, has been completed. Bids for some projects are ongoing. The plan is to complete most of the tasks by early next year.

Bishop says he’s now starting to focus on the programing end of things. That includes the video, the creation of an anonymous inmate mental health hotline, and increased training of custody officers.

The training will focus on how to identify, and work with, inmates experiencing a mental illness or mental health break.

That training is a philosophical shift that is taking place across the country.

To the south, in Oregon’s Multnomah County, the jail intake staff has also put a focus on identifying mental health issues upon intake. When told about Clark County’s plans for a video, Lt. Steve Alexander, the public information office for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, said he thought it was a great idea.

“I’m going to look into that because this idea might be something that is worthy of our time,” Alexander said. “Any way you can communicate, to reach out to the inmates, is a good thing. If you even connect with one more person, it’s a good thing.”

Bishop says the jail will still fulfill Sheriff Garry Lucas’ campaign motto of “hard beds for hard criminals,” but the jail also wants to help those who are looking for it.

“The first part is that we need to provide people with the tools to break recidivism,” Bishop said. “We need to take a hard, hard look at the fact that you need to give people hope at one of the lowest parts of their life.”

Bishop points out that two of the suicides at the jail took place within 12 hours of the individuals’ being booked.

A third suicide involved an inmate who talked with people in neighboring cells about suicide.

The plan, Bishop says, is to educate both the inmates and the officers in identifying those who are suffering.

“We want to let someone know that this isn’t a bad thing, and we’re here to help,” Bishop said. “Sure, there are issues of a quote-unquote snitch, but that is about criminal activity. We are talking about reporting someone for their own health. We are talking about the human thing to do.”


Erik Hidle: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com.