Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Oregon Jail Suicides Lead Grand Juries to Fault Prevention Efforts, Staff Training

A January 3, 2011 grand jury report found that suicide prevention was a major concern at the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) in Portland, Oregon. Seventeen days later that finding was tragically underscored by the jail’s third suicide in 10 months.

On January 18, 2011, Michael J. Holmes, 37, was arrested on drug charges and booked into MCDC. The charges were dismissed the next day, but Holmes remained in custody on a parole violation warrant. He was segregated due to past fights with other prisoners.

Two days later a guard discovered Holmes’ body during an 11:30 a.m. security check. He was hanging by the neck from a bed sheet tied to a window bar above his bunk.

“Anytime you have a suicide, it demands action,” said Michael Shults, chief deputy of the corrections division. “This is unacceptable. It is a terrible tragedy. Anytime a loss of life happens, we need to take action.”

On January 21, 2011, Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton asked the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association to request that two commanders from outside agencies independently review MCDC’s practices. He also asked a national suicide prevention expert to review the county’s policies and procedures.

The MCDC’s housing plan was changed so that all suicidal detainees would be held on the same floor, allowing for better observation by jail staff. Suicide prevention bars were installed on upper tiers to prevent detainees from jumping off the top level, and hooks were removed from showers to thwart hangings.

The grand jury report blamed the July 2009 move from two- to one-man cells at MCDC for an increase in suicides. In the four years prior to that change there was only one suicide at the jail, which occurred in a single cell. Two prisoners killed themselves within one year after the change.

“Although this might simply be a statistical aberration, mental health staff is concerned that it is not and that it represents a potential system flaw,” the grand jury wrote.

MCDC officials plan to remove the metal from the unoccupied bunks that remain in the single cells and to seal up anything that could be used for hanging.

Chief Deputy Shults admitted that staff at the jail had not received suicide prevention training for years. “It’s got to happen,” he stated.

Meanwhile, just ten miles from MCDC at the Washington County Jail in Hillsboro, another detainee committed suicide one day after Holmes killed himself.

Alexander Jay, 40, had been held at the jail since December 2009. He was convicted of rape and other sex offenses in December 2010 and scheduled for sentencing at 1 p.m. on January 21, 2011. A guard discovered him unconscious in his cell at 11:34 a.m., according to Sheriff’s spokesman Vance Stimler. Jay apparently bled to death after stabbing himself with a pencil; attempts to revive him were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at the jail.

In Clackamas County, a 2010 corrections grand jury found that jailers lacked adequate training to respond to mentally ill prisoners. The report noted that other grand juries in 2008 and 2009 had called for jail staff to complete “crisis intervention training” (CIT), but it still had not occurred.

“The CIT training has not been completed for corrections deputies, with no completion date set, and there are no plans for additional training in dealing with the mentally ill,” the grand jury report observed.

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts noted that the number of mentally ill prisoners had risen. Between 18 and 30 percent of prisoners suffer from severe mental illness, according to intake evaluations. As many as 50 to 80 percent may suffer from minor to moderate mental health problems, Roberts acknowledged. Detainee psychiatric medications cost the county more than $140,000 annually.

Roberts also claimed that staff training was a top priority. On February 29, 2011, just as the Clackamas County grand jury findings were released, the county launched a new weeklong crisis intervention class.

“Getting everyone through the 40-hour course is going to take time,” said Roberts. “Class size is intentionally small because it is so intensive in the various scenarios they work through. But we certainly are committed to getting everyone through the training.”

The jail’s 24 lieutenant and sergeant supervisors have completed the course, according to Jail Commander Mike Alexander. “We had them go through first so that someone with that training would be on duty during every shift at the jail,” he said. “Now, we’re beginning to send the 69 floor deputies through the course, too.”Unfortunately, suicides among detainees in Oregon jails persist. On March 6, 2011, prisoner Kit Milo Brittain, 29, was found unconscious at the Springfield Municipal Jail, where he had been held for eight days. He hung himself with a bed sheet and later died. “His behavior appeared to be normal [with] no signs of depression,” said police chief Jerry Smith. Brittain was alone in his cell at the time he committed suicide; he had been arrested on misdemeanor charges of urinating in public, escape and resisting arrest.

And on July 17, 2011, a deputy at the Washington County jail found Ryan Douglas, 44, hanging in his cell from a bed sheet, one day after he was arrested on a number of charges that included a probation violation, reckless driving and escape from a community corrections center.

Sources: The Oregonian,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login