Clark County Jail's suicide prevention work pays off

Changes were made to the physical plant, treatment methods

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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No suicides have been recorded so far this year at the Clark County Jail — a dramatic contrast to the four in 2012 and three in 2011.

"I'm ecstatic," Jail Chief Ric Bishop said. "It's telling me that the things we're putting together. … The steps we've taken have made a positive impact."

The startling number of inmate suicides in recent years — 13 from 2007 through 2012 — led to increased pressure for change from mental health advocates, families of inmates, custody officers and county commissioners.

Sheriff Garry Lucas tasked Bishop with making the jail a safer place for those who might be contemplating suicide.

Late last year, the jail replaced protruding fixtures around the facility. The agency swapped in shorter, ball-shaped shower heads, put in fire sprinklers shaped like cones and replaced metal window frames with those that no longer have a gap -- all measures to limit means for inmates to hang themselves.

The upgrades were paid for by a $545,000 supplemental budget that county commissioners approved in November 2012.

Other changes focus on the jail's implementing a more therapeutic approach to housing mentally ill people.

This includes increasing the amount of mental health counseling for inmates from 80 to 120 hours per week. The increased service didn't increase the budget because other medical costs were kept down.

Voices in your head

All of the corrections staff at the jail, including deputies, sergeants and commanders, underwent training aimed at increasing understanding of mental illness.

The training had each person listen to recorded voices on a Discman for 40 minutes while being directed to do various tasks.

The recording included a calm woman's voice who says, "You are the one. … I came for the one," and an aggressive male voice that eventually butts in: "You are disgusting. … Stop it, stop it now."

The voices are meant to imitate what those with mental illness might be experiencing while in jail.

"The best way (to understand) is to walk in their shoes," said John Furze, mental health coordinator for the jail. "It's to help (officers) understand that it's hard, and create that shared experience."

The training fell into the sheriff's office's contract with Conmed Health Management, so the county paid only for overtime for the corrections deputies.

While the number of suicides has been reduced, the amount of attempted suicides by inmates has stayed fairly consistent.

In both 2012 and 2011, the jail recorded 11 suicide attempts. Numbers for 2013 show 11 attempted suicides through July, but Bishop said that doesn't necessarily mean numbers are up.

After a full investigation, Bishop said, some of the incidents that are first reported as attempted suicide are later determined to be something else. For example, if an inmate jumps from one floor of the jail to another on a dare, it may first be reported as attempted suicide.

"Our staff is extremely aware, after the training and after the tragedies that have happened in this facility," Bishop said. "We are able to intervene in these attempts versus having the tragedy of a successful suicide."