Wash. jail removing bedsheets, hiring expert after inmate suicides

Jail deputies will be required to carry bladed rescue hooks after five inmates in a 12-month period died by suicide at the jail

By Chad Sokol
The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Inmates at the Spokane County Jail and the Geiger Corrections Center no longer will be issued bedsheets, and jail deputies will be required to carry bladed rescue hooks in an effort to prevent inmate suicides, the jail announced Thursday.

The changes, which are expected to take effect by September, follow a 12-month period during which five men died at the jail – three after hanging themselves with bedsheets in their cells.

Sgt. Tom Hill, a spokesman for Spokane County Detention Services, said the department also has hired a consultant, Lindsay Hayes, to audit the jail’s suicide-prevention practices and produce a report in September. Hayes, who has been recognized as a leading expert on suicide in correctional settings, last visited the Spokane County Jail following a spate of deaths in 1999.

“Mr. Hayes believes that all in-custody suicides are preventable, and that’s absolutely where we want to be,” Hill said. “If he can get us there, that’s where we want to go.”

Shannon Griffiths said hearing about the prevention efforts was encouraging yet “bittersweet.” Her younger brother, Patrick J. Flynn, died at age 36 after hanging himself in the jail last month.

“It’s good to see that they’re doing something, given that these are simple things they could have been doing after the first death,” Griffiths said. “I wish it would bring Pat back, but it won’t.”

While inmates no longer will receive bedsheets, they will each get two blankets, which are thicker, harder to tear and harder to tie around one’s neck without drawing attention from jail deputies, Hill said. He said it would take a couple of months to buy more blankets and work out the logistics of washing them all.

Administrators at the Snohomish County Jail in Everett removed bedsheets after three inmates killed themselves in September 2014, two by hanging. Hill, who has consulted with Snohomish County officials, said the policy seems to be effective.

“There were obviously complaints in the beginning, but now it seems to be accepted by their inmate population,” he said. “So they’re very pleased with it.”

Hill added that some inmates have fashioned sheets into ropes for escape attempts, while others use them to cause headaches for their jailers.

“The sheets – beyond the most important issue – cause us a lot of problems,” he said. “The inmates flush them down the toilet. They tear them up to use them for everything from bookmarks to weightlifting equipment, and so on.”

Some jail deputies already carry bladed rescue hooks. Hill said he recently ordered a batch of new rescue hooks, and all deputies will be required to carry them. The instruments have blunt outer edges so they can be slipped around a piece of bed sheet, for example, without cutting skin.

Records recently obtained by The Spokesman-Review indicate Flynn was withdrawing from heroin when he hanged himself on the afternoon of May 19, two days after he was arrested on a robbery charge. He was alone in his cell when he moved to end his life, but a former cellmate later told a deputy Flynn had made suicidal comments while the two were housed together.

The records indicate a jail deputy spotted Flynn hanging from an upper bunk, facing a wall, while conducting routine cell checks, which are required every 30 minutes. But the deputy, who was alone on the fifth floor, did not immediately enter Flynn’s cell. Instead, he kicked the door to see if Flynn would respond, then radioed for backup. When he did not receive a response, he radioed again. He opened the cell door only when another deputy arrived on the floor.

It’s not clear how long that took, but Hill said he trusts the deputy’s judgment. Deputies are trained not to enter cells alone to avoid being ambushed by inmates.

“We have told the staff, ‘We encourage you to go into the cell if you feel safe. If you do not feel safe, if you have any reason to suspect a problem or anything else, you can stand by until assistance gets there,’” Hill said. “It’s kind of our ongoing philosophy. When inmates fight, for example, we don’t want our staff to engage and break it up until the assistance team gets there.”

Flynn’s mother, Darla Saywers, who recently retired after 23 years as a corrections officer at the state prison in Airway Heights, said she does not fault the deputy either.

“You should never enter a cell alone,” she said.

The deputy cut Flynn’s noose, and paramedics were called. Flynn had a heartbeat when he was transported to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, but died there on May 21. The medical examiner determined the cause was brain damage from lack of oxygen. More than 100 people attended Flynn’s funeral service in Spokane Valley on Saturday.

Hill highlighted the local health district’s methadone treatment program for people addicted to opioids. Health officials now can administer methadone and another drug called buprenorphine, which can reduce withdrawal symptoms, inside the jail, though Hill could not immediately say if Flynn was receiving either drug.

The other two inmates who died by suicide were Brandon P. Ryans, 41, and Christopher A. Rogers, 24.

The medical examiner’s office has not finished investigating the March 1 death of 52-year-old David Good, who had been homeless in Spokane, though records indicate he had been withdrawing from alcohol. The June 13 death of 31-year-old Shane A. Carson, who was housed with a cellmate, also remains under investigation.

Another spate of deaths occurred at the jail in 2015. Five inmates died between January and July of that year, including 46-year-old John Everitt, who managed to hang himself with a bedsheet despite being on suicide watch in an observation cell. At the time, the Spokane Human Rights Commission called for a federal investigation.

©2018 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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