- Associated Press - Friday, April 14, 2017

RENO, Nev. (AP) - After a newspaper investigation revealed a sharp increase in suicides and in-custody deaths at a Nevada jail, an independent audit found serious deficiencies in training and mental health care for inmates.

Washoe County Sheriff Chuck Allen requested the outside review after the Reno Gazette-Journal launched its probe into deaths at the county jail where the suicide rate jumped to nearly 10 times the national rate two years ago.

The spike coincided with an end to suicide training and ongoing problems with the jail’s private health care provider, according to a Gazette-Journal series that started running last week (https://www.rgj.com/series/deathbehindbars/).

Last month’s audit by the National Commission for Correctional Health Care Resources Inc. documented lengthy wait times to see mental health specialists, medical staff denying inmates their psychotropic prescription if it wasn’t on the jail’s approved medication list, officials taking inmates off suicide watch who continued to pose risks and a lack of adequate suicide-prevention training.

The organization issued 27 recommendations to improve health care delivery, urging the jail to quickly react because of the alarmingly suicide rate. Allen said many of the recommended changes already have been adopted, including additional training.

Based on records obtained in public records requests, the Gazette-Journal found 13 inmates died in custody in the two-plus years since Allen took office in January 2015, including six suicides. Three inmates died after being restrained in struggles with deputies and two from natural causes.

By comparison, one or two inmates died annually the eight years before Allen arrived, totaling 10 from 2007-14. All but two of those were natural causes, the newspaper reported.

There were no suicides from 2011-14. The three in 2015 produced a rate of 300 per 100,000 inmates - nearly 10 times the national rate. The jail reported two suicides last year and one so far this year.

The in-custody death rate overall jumped from 83 per 100,000 in 2014, to 643 in 2015. It dipped to 573 in 2016 - still five times the U.S. norm.

The newspaper reported that one of Allen’s first moves as sheriff was hiring a new health care provider at the jail. With the Washoe County Commission’s blessing, the ex-state trooper gave the jail’s $5.9 million contract to Alabama-based NaphCare, which already was serving Clark County jail in Las Vegas.

To save time, he skipped the normal competitive bidding process, taking advantage of a state law allowing local governments to simply join a contract held by another Nevada jurisdiction.

Allen and his staff attributed the increased deaths to outside factors, including inmates’ poor health and addiction issues, and random circumstances jail personnel can’t control. He noted it wasn’t the first spike in suicides. There were eight in 2005-06.

But the audit following a four-day onsite visit in January documented a general lack of recognition of suicide problems, noting that mental health staff didn’t know of specific suicides that occurred in the last year.

Allen, who isn’t running for re-election, criticized the newspaper in a sharply-worded statement this week explaining why he won’t meet with its editorial board. He said he and his staff spent countless hours with reporters in hope “our cooperation would lead to an honest and beneficial public discussion.”

“Unfortunately, corporate media has a different agenda,” Allen said. “Shallow, pick and choose tabloidism is not the same as true journalism. Our goal was to solicit for realistic answers, not exploit an extremely painful situation.”

RGJ Executive Editor Kelly Scott said Allen’s response was “disappointing.”

“We investigate community problems with the goal of working toward solutions, and part of that involves public officials coming to the table to help find those solutions,” she said.


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com

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