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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Garfield County to send inmates to Whitman County Jail two years after suicide controversy

The Garfield County Jail cell where Kyle Lara was held in isolation.  (Courtesy of Galanda Broadman law firm)

The Garfield County commissioners are considering whether to close their jail as a result of staffing and facility problems. In the meantime, some inmates will be housed in Whitman County.

The change comes two years after a man was dead for more than 18 hours before dispatchers, who monitor the Garfield Jail, noticed, according to a complaint filed last year.

Whitman County commissioners unanimously approved a yearlong contract to take Garfield’s inmates late last month.

“We all have to kind of help each other out when capacity issues arise,” said Commissioner Tom Handy.

“Just helping out a neighboring county,” Commissioner Art Swannack added.

Garfield County, located in Eastern Washington along the Oregon border, is the smallest county in the state by population and has only one incorporated town, Pomeroy.

Garfield County Sheriff Drew Hyer did not respond to requests for comment.

The jail was in the bottom of the courthouse built in 1901.

Justin Dixon, Garfield County commissioner, said the suicide two years ago made the county take a new look at the facility.

Kyle Lara, 36, hanged himself in his cell while awaiting trial in Pomeroy in April 2022. An $8.5 million claim against the county filed by his family alleges the county housed him alone in the basement of the courthouse and served his body two meals before discovering the death.

A formal lawsuit has not been filed.

The Garfield County Commission and the sheriff’s office are looking at whether to close their jail permanently, he said. The contract with Whitman County is a helpful safety net, he said.

Right now, the jail is still open, but the sheriff’s office is using other counties like Whitman and Walla Walla to house inmates, he said.

“The jail standards that are needing to be met by Washington state are very strict, and so it’s tough for us with a small department to have jailers and road deputies,” Dixon said.

Currently, the Garfield jail is not monitored 24/7 by a deputy, he said. The county is negotiating with the deputies union, Dixon said. He hopes a new contract will coincide with a final decision on the jail within the next few months.

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said he’s thankful there’s capacity in Whitman County to help out.

“It’s just a right thing to do, and we’ve got the room,” Myers said.

The Colfax jail can house up to 64 people but is usually at about half its capacity, Myers said.

He expects Garfield County to take up one or two beds a day, with four at the most.

Each pod in the jail has its own court room space so inmates can attend hearings remotely. Otherwise, Garfield County sheriff’s deputies will be responsible for transporting people. Garfield County will pay to cover the cost of housing the inmates, he said.

“We’re going to do anything we can to help our neighboring counties be successful in any way,” Myers said. “It’s how to keep our communities safe and help out other offices.”