Sheriff's office to explore ideas for suicide prevention at jail

Pair of recent incidents being investigated

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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Clark County Jail

Inmates: 729, daily average (year to date).

Inmates on suicide watch: 56 a month on average.

Custody officers: 143 budgeted officers, sergeants at jail and work center on Lower River Road.

Capacity: 825 beds at jail and work center.

Year built: 1984.

Clark County sheriff's detectives are investigating the circumstances surrounding two inmate suicides that occurred last week in the Clark County Jail.

On Saturday, Lee Evan Dow, 25, of Vancouver committed suicide by hanging himself, according to a sheriff's office news release. Six days earlier, Shawn Rahier, 42, hanged himself in the jail.

Even before the two most recent suicides, safety in the jail has been a concern for county commissioners and the sheriff's office.

Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt said commissioners have requested a work session with Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas and jail administrators to discuss procedural issues, such as why and where inmates are assigned.

Lucas said on Monday that suicides in the jail are treated like any other death investigation. Major Crimes detectives will interview witnesses, collect evidence and make a determination on the cause of death. Jail staff will debrief and look at the circumstances of the incident and see if there is any way to prevent it in the future, Lucas said.

"It's something we've been concerned about for a long time," Lucas said. "It's not a new thing."

Modifications have been made in the jail to try to eliminate opportunities for inmates to commit suicide by strangulation, Lucas said. For instance, the sheriff's office eliminated exposed sprinkler heads.

"We're certainly not eliminating making further modifications in the future," he said. "We certainly want to prevent as many as we possibly can."

According to a June report from Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey, between 2007 and 2011 the jail has been "heavily impacted by special-needs inmates: the mentally ill, geriatric, physically or mentally challenged or violent." Suicide attempts have more than doubled since 2007, the report said.

In an interview earlier this year, Jackie Webster, Clark County Jail chief, said the jail isn't set up to be a hospital. Inmates are routinely double-bunked in the jail's six-room medical unit, and other special-needs inmates have to be isolated. That leads to overcrowding in other pods.

"Most of these people are hearing voices, saying, 'I want to kill you,'" Webster said. "So am I going to put them in with another inmate?"

At the same time, the jail doesn't have an adequate number of staff members to keep 24-hour watch on at-risk inmates.

"We have more and more people coming in with mental health issues and we deal with a very difficult population," said Cmdr. Mike Anderson.

In general, fewer resources for people with mental health problems combined with the use of illicit drugs creates a problem, he said.

"Unfortunately we've become the hotel of last resort," Anderson said.

Custody staff and internal affairs also investigate each suicide.

Cmdr. Ric Bishop, who was the commander on duty during both recent suicides, said his incident report will include areas that need improvement and things that went well compared to national sources. He will submit his report to Lucas to see what changes can be made.

Some procedural changes followed past suicide investigations, including making inmates at risk of suicide wear suicide smocks and having custody officers check in on suicide watch inmates every 15 minutes, Bishop said.

The two inmates who committed suicide last week were not on suicide watch, he said.

"It's just a tragedy," Anderson said. "It's tragic for the victim's family. It's tragic for our staff and its tragic for the community."

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;paul.suarez@columbian.com. Columbian staff writer Stephanie Rice contributed to this story.