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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Jail deaths heighten staffing concerns; march planned to highlight problem

The Spokane County Jail is pictured June 28, 2018. On any given day, about 4,700 people held in Washington jails are eligible to be released based on their likelihood to commit new crimes and show up to court before trial, according to a new report from the state auditor’s office. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Community members are planning to march this evening from Salem Lutheran Church to the Spokane County Courthouse to draw attention to the deaths of inmates at the county jail.

The demonstration, which is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., is sponsored by several local organizations, including the Center for Justice, the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force and the Ministerial Fellowship of Spokane.

“In the last 14 months, 8 individuals have died while in custody at the Spokane County Jail,” reads a description of the event on Facebook. “This is unacceptable.”

County officials say they are taking steps to prevent more deaths. In recent months, they have called in a suicide-prevention expert, who is expected to issue a report soon. They have stopped issuing bedsheets to prevent inmates from hanging themselves. And they have launched a program to provide some inmates with buprenorphine, a drug that curbs the symptoms of opioid withdrawal – which can cause life-threatening illness, and drive some people to take their own lives.

“We’re hoping this buprenorphine can minimize those withdrawal symptoms and, hopefully, keep that thought of suicide out of these people’s heads,” County Commissioner Josh Kerns said in an interview last week.

Meanwhile, some have raised concerns about staffing levels at the overcrowded jail, where a single corrections officer is often responsible for supervising an entire floor – up to 184 inmates.

There have been staffing shortages at state and federal prisons across the country, but shortages in local jails have received less attention. Low pay and stigma surrounding the job are often blamed for the problem.

“It is dangerous work for which, in many places, people get paid very little,” said Richard Greene, of the government consulting firm Barrett and Greene Inc., who has written about prison guard shortages. “It is at heart a situation … in which all of your clients don’t want to be working with you.”

Gordon Smith, who represents Spokane County corrections officers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said staffing is the main concern he hears about from union members.

“The common denominator does seem to be staffing levels,” Smith said, “and the number of inmates housed in a jail that really wasn’t structured for that many.”

The downtown jail was originally designed for “direct supervision,” a management strategy in which inmates are allowed into common areas during the day with access to TV, books, phones, games and other activities. This strategy has been shown to reduce stress, improve inmate behavior and prevent assaults.

But Smith has said the facility operates less like a jail – where many inmates are legally innocent and awaiting trial – and more like a maximum-security prison.

In response to a list of emailed questions, county spokesman Jared Webley indicated that inmates spend up to 23 hours per day in their cells.

“Inmates will typically spend 1-6 hours out of their cell each day depending on a variety of situations,” he wrote. When inmates are out of their cells, there is typically one officer on duty for every 46 inmates, he wrote.

Webley said there are 142 corrections officers on staff at the downtown jail and 66 at Geiger Corrections Center. He said the county commissioners have authorized 25 new officer positions since 2016, but filling those positions has been a challenge.

There are currently 10 unfilled officer positions at the downtown jail, he said. Listings for those jobs advertise a pay range of $48,526 to $62,289 per year, plus benefits.

“As is the case throughout the law enforcement community nationwide, we are having a very difficult time finding applicants to fill the positions,” Webley wrote.

Smith said the staffing shortage has forced corrections officers to work “thousands of hours of mandatory overtime” per year, though neither he nor Webley could immediately provide specific figures.

“With what we can afford, we’ve done our best to give them more corrections officers,” Kerns said.

Webley wrote that NaphCare Inc., the Alabama-based company that provides medical care for Spokane County inmates, has 50 employees in Spokane. He said the company “has dramatically improved the quality of care” by reducing a shortage of nurses that existed before the company was hired in 2016, and by providing new services such as intake screening, withdrawal monitoring and an on-site pharmacy.

Webley wrote that in 2017, corrections officers and mental health staff identified 2,753 different inmates who were “in crisis,” and those inmates received services on 8,489 occasions.

“In the current environment where opioid addiction is ever increasing, suicide attempts, threats and gestures have become commonplace,” he wrote. “The staff of Detention Services do an amazing job of recognizing suicidal behavior and taking action to protect those people.”