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In The Pacific Northwest, Concern Grows Over The Number Of Deaths In County Jails

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the Pacific Northwest, there is growing concern over the number of deaths in county jails. An investigation by public radio stations paints a picture of what's happening. Nearly half of Oregon and Washington inmates who died in custody killed themselves, and at least 70% of those who died in the past decade were awaiting trial. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has more.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: After 40 days in the Josephine County Jail, Janelle Marie Butterfield hanged herself using a bed sheet in her cell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT SELBY: I was the one that found the body.

WILSON: Robert Selby is a corrections deputy at the Josephine County Jail in southern Oregon. And he's speaking to an Oregon State Police detective investigating Butterfield's death last September.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SELBY: As soon as I saw it, I got on the radio. And I called all staff respond to 408, possible suicide.

WILSON: They tried to revive her but couldn't. Butterfield died. She was 34.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SELBY: I never would have suspected Butterfield to do this. I mean, she was always, you know, a little strange, a little bit different. But she never seemed like that type.

WILSON: The type of person who would hurt herself. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people in Northwest jails. But many jail officials have taken little action to curb the problem and protect inmates. In fact, they say they didn't know the scope of the problem until an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting, KUOW in Seattle and the Northwest News Network.

The investigation found since 2008, more than 300 people have died from a range of causes after being taken to county jails in Oregon or Washington. Nearly half the known causes of death were suicide.

JENNIFER WILLIAMSON: I have real safety concerns about what I'm seeing.

WILSON: Jennifer Williamson is Oregon's House majority leader and a Democrat. After the investigation, she introduced legislation to better track jail deaths in the state. That bill was signed into law last month.

WILLIAMSON: I mean, it shows me that we have people who are very sick and the mentally ill in our facilities, and we don't know how to deal with them. And because we don't know how to deal with them, they're dying. And that's unacceptable.

WILSON: Years before she died, Butterfield was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Intake records from Josephine County show the jail knew Butterfield had a, quote, "history of emotional or mental disturbance." It's unclear what steps, if any, the jail took when she was in their care.

The Josephine County Sheriff's Office won't talk about Butterfield's death. Many jail commanders say the top thing they worry about is suicide. Yet, some law enforcement officials say not all suicides in jails are preventable.

JOHN BISHOP: They're going to happen.

WILSON: John Bishop is the executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association.

J. BISHOP: I think that if somebody's going to kill themselves, they're going to do it. I just don't - I think in theory, maybe, you could say it could be preventable, but not practically.

SARAH RADCLIFFE: I don't think that we should accept this rate of suicidality in jail as inevitable.

WILSON: Sarah Radcliffe is the managing attorney for Disability Rights Oregon. She says even though corrections deputies get some mental health training, it's not enough.

RADCLIFFE: We know a lot about suicide risk, you know, in terms of what are those risk factors, even for an individual who doesn't come out and say, I'm feeling suicidal.

WILSON: Suicides like Butterfield's, where inmates use bedding from their bed frame to hang themselves, have been a well-documented concern across the country for decades. And that's led some jailers to try new approaches.

In southwest Washington, Clark County Jail Commander Ric Bishop walked through his overcrowded jail. Two years ago, he made a controversial decision.

RIC BISHOP: Because of the potential and the risk, we have done away with bedsheets.

WILSON: Bedsheets that could be used by inmates to kill themselves. Instead, the jail gives extra blankets.

R. BISHOP: They're suicide-resistant. They're harder to tear up. But the bedsheets had to go.

WILSON: Because...

R. BISHOP: Of the potential for self-harm.

WILSON: And he's speaking from experience. Between 2012 and 2016, nine people died by suicide in the jail. In addition to removing sheets, they also installed molded plastic bunks that are harder to tie things on in higher-security areas. They also got rid of many traditional doorknobs and shower hooks. And they train their officers about how to better manage mental health crises.

R. BISHOP: But changing just one thing, bedsheets, isn't going to just eliminate a jail, in-custody-death problem. It has to be that holistic approach.

WILSON: Bishop travels around the country, promoting the changes he's made in his jail, changes he says have made a difference. The jail has not had a suicide in nearly three years. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.