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Jail grapples with inmate deaths, staff shortage

UPDATED: Thu., July 16, 2015, 10:18 a.m.

Update:Tammy Heinen’s family members said Thursday she did not receive the medical care she needed before her arrest Sunday on an outstanding warrant.

“To me, it’s like anyone who comes in there with a drug history is non-essential,” said Heinen’s mother, Barbara. “My daughter was essential to me.”

Family members said the 44-year-old had recently been diagnosed with a leg infection and was taking antibiotics. Her boyfriend was on the way to the hospital with her when she was picked up on the warrant, they said.

Kim Heinen, Tammy’s sister, said Thursday her sister was forced to walk to the squad car despite being bound to a wheelchair because of her ailment.

“She’s more than just her court records,” Kim Heinen said. “She had a great sense of humor. She would give you the shirt off her back.”

Tammy Heinen leaves behind an 8-year-old daughter, who is being cared for by her mother. Barbara Heinen said she wants answers for her granddaughter’s sake.

Patrol officers handle medical situations on a case-by-case basis, said Spokane Police spokeswoman Teresa Fuller. If it is determined there is a medical emergency, police will call medics to inspect a suspect on-scene before transporting them to either the hospital or the jail, she said. If it is not determined to be an emergency, police will take the suspect to the jail for a medical evaluation, she said. At that time, jail staff may ask the police to take the person in custody to the hospital, Fuller said.

Original story follows.

The Spokane County Jail is having difficulty hiring and retaining medical staff, while a spate of recent inmate deaths appear to be caused by health issues.

County commissioners, who oversee the jail, expressed concern about the in-custody deaths, which total four over the past 10 weeks. The latest was the death of Tammy Sue Heinen, 44, who was alone in her cell shortly after 4:30 p.m. Monday.

The solution may not be simple, with nurse hires occurring slowly and staff contending with inmates who arrive intoxicated or uncooperative.

“We’re not a triage hospital,” Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said. “We’re a correctional facility. We don’t have a full medical team.”

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is investigating Heinen’s death. Jail staff did not return a call requesting information on the charge that landed her in jail, and there is no record that Heinen made a court appearance before her death.

She pleaded guilty to third-degree malicious mischief in October 2012 and was still paying off restitution in a residential burglary from 1999, according to court records. Heinen had twice been arrested while holding heroin, according to police, but the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office has not determined a cause of death.

John Everitt, 46, died May 4 of an apparent suicide while alone in a cell. Lorenzo Hayes, 37, died in Spokane police custody of an apparent cardiac arrest May 13 while he was being booked into the jail. And on June 12, Scott M. Stevens, 53, was found unresponsive in his cell, much like Heinen.

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said the jail has been reviewing its processes in the wake of the deaths, which already have numbered more through July than in most recent years.

Jail Commander John McGrath told commissioners that eight nursing positions remain open, after commissioners voted unanimously in October to hire more medical staff and guards at the jail using savings from fewer overtime payments to existing staff. Five of the top 10 county employees who received the most overtime pay in 2014 worked in Detention Services, according to public records.

The jail still does not employ a nurse in the booking area, one of the priorities for commissioners moving forward.

“The issue we’re running into is, we only get a couple applicants a week,” McGrath said. “Then you try to take them on a tour of the jail, then it’s usually a decline, or they just don’t make it through that process.”

The jail contracts with two companies to help fill the positions, McGrath said. Many applicants don’t pass a background check or have declined an offered position, he said.

O’Quinn said when the authorization was made to hire nurses, the commission was aware the job market would make recruitment tough.

“We knew it would be a challenge,” she said.

Even with a full staff, commissioners acknowledged jail employees face difficulty identifying inmates’ medical issues and making sure they’re addressed. Mielke said inmates usually are subjected only to an interview, not a physical, when they’re booked into jail, and they may not have a desire to cooperate and answer jail staff truthfully.

“You’ve got a handicap the minute you put them in the squad car,” Commissioner Al French said.


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