ACLU on suicide watch 

On July 11, four days after Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman presented recommendations stemming from the National Institute of Corrections’ recent jail assessment, the Montana office of the American Civil Liberties Union performed its own inspection of the jail.

The four ACLU representatives were joined by Hoffman, Ravalli County Commissioners Greg Chilcott and Allen Thompson, Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin and an Independent reporter; Lt. Cathy Powell, who’s in charge of the jail, led the tour.

Scott Crichton, ACLU Montana’s executive director, says the inspection following a string of four inmate suicides within the last 16 months was a first step in “trying to understand firsthand what the situation was and what the responses are in Ravalli County.”

Hoffman requested the NIC assessment following the fourth suicide in May, and NIC consultant Judith Cox recently spent two days touring the facility, speaking with workers and inmates and inspecting records. The resulting 12-page report focuses on concerns about inmates’ health care and environmental conditions and cites a need for increased staffing by health professionals as well as detention center officers and improved communication and training among staff.

At a budget presentation on Monday, June 27, Hoffman requested additional funds totaling nearly $900,000 from the county commissioners, which would cover the hiring of three more detention officers, two in-house nurses and a medical record clerk. Hoffman says the increases could help head off future suicide attempts.

While Crichton isn’t sure what, if any, further efforts the ACLU might make, he does say, “Having a safe and secure facility is in everybody’s interest, not just in the inmates’ interest. It’s clear the facility is understaffed and the solution to that is something that we’re going to try to figure out.”

The ACLU has an ongoing interest in jails across Montana, Crichton says, and Ravalli certainly isn’t the only county struggling with understaffing; in fact, Ravalli’s facility, built in 1994, is one of the newer jails in the state.

“All of the counties operating jails are faced with similar dilemmas right now,” Crichton says. “So at some point the state as a whole is going to have to address this issue.”

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