In Our View: Progress on Jail Suicides

Sheriff's office identifies problem, takes steps that make a positive difference

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he bottom line suggests that progress is being made in the Clark County Jail’s efforts to prevent suicide among inmates. That bottom line? There have been no suicides this year at the jail — after four in 2012 and three in 2011. In fact, from 2007 through 2012, there were 13 suicides at the jail. While the efforts to protect inmates and prevent suicides at the facility is an ongoing endeavor, it is no accident that the number is down in 2013.

“I’m ecstatic,” jail chief Ric Bishop told Columbian reporter Emily Gillespie. “It’s telling me that the things we’re putting together . . . the steps we’ve taken have made a positive impact.”

Most of those steps have dealt with giving deputies and staff a better understanding of mental illness. A 2010 study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center suggested that there are three times as many seriously mentally ill people incarcerated than there are in hospitals. Mental illness often is an underlying factor in the commission of crimes, or in the drug or alcohol abuse that contributes to criminal behavior.

Because of that, steps have been taken to improve the jail’s ability to deal with those suffering from mental illness. For example, the availability of counseling has been increased from 80 hours a week to 120 hours a week, a change that was budget neutral because other medical costs were kept down.

But the most interesting portion of the intensified training involved an attempt to provide jail staff with some understanding of the issues faced by the mentally ill. According to Gillespie’s report, staff listened to recorded voices for 40 minutes while being directed to perform various tasks. In other words, they learned what it’s like to literally have voices in your head while attempting to function, something that many mentally ill people deal with on a daily basis. “The best way 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.”

Mental illness is not the only issue that jail staff must deal with. Nor is it something that can be solved, prevented or eradicated. But focusing on such illness — along with making basic environmental changes inside the jail building to prevent inmates from hanging themselves — has made a real difference in protecting those who are incarcerated.

Yes, this makes financial sense. For example, in 2011, the county and a former medical contractor settled a lawsuit in which each party paid $175,000 to the family of an inmate who died at the jail; the county is at risk when an inmate tries to harm himself. But it makes even more sense in terms of preventing a human cost. While the most callous among us might have little empathy for those who are incarcerated or those who commit suicide, the fact is that such deaths exact a horrific toll on families in our community. Part of being a civilized society is acting with compassion toward our most vulnerable and most troubled citizens.

While the Clark County Jail has made it through the first 11 months of 2013 without a suicide, the number of attempts has remained similar to previous years. This demonstrates the need for continued vigilance and for continued training. But for now, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is deserving of kudos. Goodness knows, the media and the public are quick to criticize public officials when something goes wrong, yet slow to praise when something goes right. The bottom line: Under the direction of Sheriff Garry Lucas, the jail identified a problem and has undertaken steps that are making a positive difference in our community.