by David M. Reutter
An investigative report by the Reno Gazette-Journal found that 13 detainees died at WCJ in the two years since Allen took office. Just two were ruled deaths by natural causes; the others resulted from two accidents, six suicides and three deaths by restraint. Only 10 prisoners had died at WCJ between 2007 and 2017, and eight of those were due to natural causes.Deaths at the Washoe County Jail (WCJ) in Nevada increased six-fold after Sheriff Chuck Allen took office in 2015. The spike coincided with an end to annual suicide prevention training for guards; it also coincided with the award of a no-bid contract for medical care at WCJ to for-profit healthcare provider NaphCare.
Compared with data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, WCJ’s death rate is five times the national average and in the last two years the suicide rate at the facility has tripled. Sheriff Allen refused to assign blame to jail policies or his guards.
“Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on a particular problem or issue when talking about human lives,” he said. “It’s important for the community to understand this isn’t a Sheriff Allen thing.”
His predecessor, former Sheriff Mike Haley, had a different view.
“The number of deaths far outweigh the number we had in past years, so somewhere along the way there’s a critical lack of information about how to run the organization,” Haley said. “Those cracks are occurring, and unfortunately people die when those cracks occur. Bad things happen sometimes by coincidence, but often times not, often there are underlying deficiencies that are core fundamentals to the problem that is presenting itself.”
About the time Sheriff Allen took office, WCJ’s public information officer, Bob Norman, stopped putting out press releases on prisoner deaths at the jail. The shroud of secrecy that was cast over those deaths – purportedly out of privacy concerns – prevented the public from being aware of or scrutinizing the increasing number of deaths. Allen reversed that policy following news reports by the Reno Gazette-Journal.
“I’m not saying all [prisoner] suicides are preventable, but many of them are when you go back and gather all of the information,” said Lindsay M. Hayes, a project director for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, and a nationally recognized expert on in-custody suicides. “I’ve found over the years that in jurisdictions that have had suicides, all of these warning signs were there.”
An audit by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) uncovered a host of problems at WCJ that included inadequate training, a lack of privacy when prisoners answered screening questions about their mental health, inadequate monitoring of suicidal detainees, prisoners being taken off suicide watch despite “clear evidence of ongoing risk factors,” and bunk beds in cells having “easily accessible” hanging anchor points.
Although none of the suicides at WCJ occurred while the prisoners were on suicide watch, Rebecca Hayhurd hanged herself on March 17, 2015 by tying her pants around her neck and securing them to an anchor point on her bunk while a video camera recorded.
Hayes said cameras can create a false sense of security and are no substitute for physical security checks. “It records what you’re doing and it records what you’re not doing,” he noted. “It doesn’t prevent anything.”
WCJ has reinstituted suicide prevention training for staff, but the NCCHC found that training to be inadequate. It recommended four hours of annual training as opposed to the current ten slides that guards view.
Between August 29, 2015 and August 7, 2016, three prisoner deaths at WCJ were caused by “excited delirium,” the medical examiner found – a condition allegedly caused by drug use or mental illness that results in an agitated person entering a “fatal spiral” while overheating, often during a struggle or restraint. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.10].
In October 2017, the Washoe County Commission voted to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the parents of a mentally ill detainee who died from “excited delirium” during a violent altercation with sheriff’s deputies while he was being booked.
The medical examiner had ruled the August 2016 death of Justin Thompson, 35, a homicide, saying he would not have suffered fatal cardiac arrest absent the struggle, when deputies pinned him to the floor, kicked him and covered his head with a spit hood. Deputies were videotaped taunting Thompson, calling him an “asshole” and a “dick.” When he cried for help, one deputy reportedly replied, “We are the help.”
Sheriff Allen said the deputies’ actions did not “reflect the standards of the men and women who work for the sheriff’s office.” No criminal charges were filed in connection with Thompson’s death. See: Thompson v. County of Washoe, U.S.D.C. (D. Nev.), Case No. 2:17-cv-00333-MMD-VPC.
Earlier, in July 2017, the County Commission agreed to pay $75,000 to settle another lawsuit, filed by the family of Niko Larome Smith – who suffered heart failure during a struggle with deputies trying to remove his clothes when he was being moved to a suicide-watch cell in August 2015. The death of Smith, who had been booked into WCJ on a charge of domestic battery, was also ruled a homicide.
Smith, 31, was placed in a cell that contained only a combination metal toilet and sink. A video camera recorded the 11 hours and 43 minutes he spent pacing the cell, pulling his hair and talking to himself. Guards came by periodically to talk with him.
At 12:30 a.m. on August 29, 2015, Smith dunked his head in the metal toilet. A police report described that incident as a suicide attempt. He spent the next half hour trying to kill himself with a jail-issued shirt hung from the cell door. His actions were noticed by guards, who decided to move him to a suicide-watch cell. Smith complied with all directives for the move and did not resist. Once at the cell, six guards pinned him to the floor, belly down, in an attempt to remove his clothing. During that struggle Smith died of “homicide by excited delirium,” the medical examiner later ruled. See: N.S. v. Solferino, U.S.D.C. (D. Nev.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00133-MMD-WGC.
Just six weeks after Smith’s death, in October 2015, Thomas Purdy was booked into WCJ in hogtie restraints. High on methamphetamines, he yelled, “Please don’t do this. Don’t do this. They’re trying to kill me.”
As four guards held him down to remove his restraints, Purdy fell silent. They then noticed he was not breathing. His death was also later attributed to excited delirium; a wrongful death suit filed by his family is pending.
Few recent prisoner deaths have been reported at WCJ, indicating the jail is finally taking steps to address the problems that resulted in a high mortality rate after Sheriff Allen took office.
Sources: Reno Gazette-Journal, www.kolotv.com, www.photographyisnotacrime.com
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