KOLD INVESTIGATES: Suicide rate at Pima County Jail increasing, part of national rise in numbers

KOLD INVESTIGATES; Suicide behind bars

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Inmates are trying to kill themselves at the Pima County Adult Detention Complex at an unprecedented rate. The spike in jail suicides isn’t just a local problem, it’s a national trend but we even double those numbers. So, why is this happening and why is this happening more here?

"I was on the bottom of the hill for the last couple of years," said Oscar Parra, former inmate at Pima County Adult Detention Complex.

He says for two years, jail was a revolving door for him. He would get out, just to be thrown back in. It was a very dark time.

“I had lost my mother and when I came out I was staying with my family and then it didn’t work out because I started doing drugs. I got into a real depression after that,” he said.

Recidivism and drugs were a big part of Oscar’s life. Now, those are two of the very things the county and Sheriff Mark Napier are paying extra attention to especially when it comes to inmate deaths.

We looked through the reports of every inmate who has died while behind bars at the facility in the last five years, with the exception of a couple of newer reports still being filed. In all, we found 30 deaths. Of those, 10 were hangings.

The county then learned the facility had more than double the number of suicides and suicide attempts compared to 20 other jails of similar size across the nation.

Assistant County Administrator Dr. Francisco Garcia immediately questioned why? In his research he identified several risk factors: pre-existing behavioral health and or substance use diagnosis, a history of bookings, inmates who are within the first week behind bars, and inmates withdrawing from alcohol or opioids.

"We know we have a lot more people coming through the door that are in active detox from drugs that have significant addictive properties," said Sheriff Napier.

As they looked even deeper into the problem, they made an interesting discovery.

“It is not just opioids,” said Dr. Garcia. “It’s opioids and alcohol most of the time that folks are withdrawing from and these are life threatening withdrawals.”

When comparing 2017 to the previous year, they found inmates withdrawing from just opioids was down roughly 30 percent. It was the same for inmates withdrawing from just alcohol. However, inmates withdrawing from both opioids and alcohol spiked more than 130 percent.

"We think it has to do with mental health issues and substance abuse,” said the sheriff. “We’re close to the border so the incidents of substance abuse is increased because we have more illicit drugs coming through our community.

Because the challenges officials now face with our inmates have changed, so must their approach.

“Critically important,” said Sheriff Napier. “The mental health condition that a person comes into the facility with is being better screened now, our detox protocols are much better than they’ve been in the past. We’re now screening those people for five days.”

Also, the county just signed on a brand new health care provider for the facility. They made their selection with jail suicide rates in mind.

"We really wanted a contractor who really knew this space really well: behavioral health, mental health," said Dr. Garcia.

Looking ahead, Dr. Garcia thinks we will soon be expanding our “Medically Assisted Treatment”, or M.A.T., options for all inmates going through detox. Right now, while they are somewhat unique in even offering M.A.T., it is limited.

"We are the only facility regionally offering M.A.T. for pregnant women," said Dr. Garcia.

Expanding M.A.T. to all inmates isn’t exactly as simple as it sounds. Being able to complete treatment is a concern.

“Remember that most people who are in jail aren’t in jail for months and months and months,” said Dr. Garcia. “They’re in jail for a relatively short period of time.”

Another concern is the cost.

“The costs are real. The downside of not doing it, is greater,” said Dr. Garcia.

Sheriff Napier agrees that the health of our inmates is worth the price. He says if you feel differently consider this: most inmates will be released and will transition back into our community.

"There's always going to be a responsibility on the part of detention facilities, jails, and prisons because we are in effect one of the larger mental health facilities in a community because people tend to come in our door like that," said Sheriff Napier.

As for Oscar's transition back into the community, he says he's now sober and is finally getting his life on the right track.

"New miracles happen to me every day that I can't believe the type of stuff that could happen when you are someone who really wants help," he said.

When it comes to the cost of Medically Assisted Treatment, we asked Dr. Garcia if this would mean committing even more tax dollars to inmate health. He said he believes there is room in the current budget with our health care contractor so no new money would need to be allocated.

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