KOLD INVESTIGATES: Suicide behind bars

(Source: Pima County Jail)
(Source: Pima County Jail)(None (custom credit))
Updated: Dec. 6, 2018 at 10:30 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Suicide rates are skyrocketing at the Pima County Adult Detention Complex. Not only that, but they’re even high on a national level.

So, KOLD went behind bars to look at the new ways our local officials are trying to stop the deaths as they throw millions more of your tax dollars at the problem.

Former Detainee Oscar Parra says he didn’t witness an inmate hanging but it did happen while he was locked up.

“I heard stories of people trying to hang themselves and like all that type of stuff like with their sheets and everything,” he said. “Some people can’t handle the situation that they’re in."

This is unfortunately a more common occurrence here than it should be. It’s something the county and Sheriff Mark Napier are aware of. Assistant County Administrator Dr. Francisco Garcia just took about six months to study the problem and complied a memo.

“The chatter that I was hearing from colleagues about increasing suicidality in correctional facilities made me want to look at what was going on in our own facility,” said Garcia. In the memo, detailed findings showing completed suicides and suicide attempts at our jail all going up.

In fact, the suicide attempts in the first six months of this year look more like our annual rate. If we keep this pace up, our numbers will be off the chart.

“Did you know beforehand this was going to be such a big deal?” asked Wendi Redman, KOLD Investigative Reporter.

"Yes, I assumed that it would be," said Sheriff Napier.

Not only do these numbers look bad for the jail, they look bad compared to other jails too. When compared to 20 other jails of similar size across the nation, our jail’s suicide rate is more than double. So, why do we have a bigger problem here?

“I’m not sure. I’m not sure what the reason would be for that,” said Dr. Garcia. “It’s really hard to tell,” said Sheriff Napier. “It’s hard to compare apples to apples simply because a jail might have 1,800 prisoners in it, doesn’t make it exactly the same as ours.”

Now, officials are taking action. Just a few months ago, the county signed on a new health care provider for the facility. They went with their number one pick: Centurion.

However, this move is not without controversy. It’s not the cheapest option. So, why was it so important to the county and to the taxpayers to invest in this?

“Because I think at the end of the day, if we don’t do a good job delivering services to folks who are in our custody, it costs us, it costs the collective us when these folks are released,” said Dr. Garcia.

When you take a closer look at the four health care providers that bid on this contract, you can see, Centurion is costing taxpayers roughly $3.5 million more than the second choice option. “There are going to be some people watching this report who will say, ‘I don’t want to pay more for inmate healthcare. If they want better care, don’t commit crimes.’

What’s your response?” asked Redman.

“These folks ultimately get released and live in our community and are our neighbors and are folks that we interact with on the street. It is in our best interest and in everybody’s best interest that these folks be served well in the facility and be hooked up with the kinds of resources after their release to allow them to be successful,” said Dr. Garcia.

So, where exactly is your money going? KOLD went behind bars to find out.

In the main medical area for Centurion, they treat the worst medical conditions including detox. They don’t just care for the detainees here, they also try to identify if they might be at risk for suicide.

That’s now also something they really focus on when each inmate first comes in. “Now one of the very first things that happens is a mental health screen right in the booking process,” said Sheriff Napier.

Other changes include: blankets instead of sheets and smaller towels so inmates can’t hang themselves. They’re even testing out a new bunk bed. It’s closer to the ground and has no way for an inmate to hang himself. Even the hooks on the wall, collapse. They also recently introduced comfort dogs. Luke may just be the very thing a suicidal inmate needs to change his mind. But are these steps working?

“This is an ongoing process,” said the sheriff. “I don’t think with a detention facility you ever spike the ball, do your victory dance and say, ‘Everything’s so perfect we don’t have to do anything anymore.’”

According to Sheriff Napier it’s just too soon to tell. More changes are on the way and the county says it will be monitoring the progress of suicide rates.

No word yet when their next report will be out but of course we will keep tracking this for you.

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