"Death Behind Bars" Series In RGJ Explores Deaths At Washoe County Jail

The Reno Gazette-Journal has been reporting on an alarming number of in-custody deaths at the Washoe County Detention Facility.

Anjeanette Damon, the paper's government watchdog reporter, started working on the The Gazette-Journal's four-part series, "Death Behind Bars," after getting a tip that there had been three suicides at the jail in a year. Damon thought that seemed high. So, she requested the records and found something surprising.

“But when the numbers came back, we saw that there was a larger problem than just suicides," she said. 

The deaths included those related to police restraints, accidental deaths and complications from detoxing from drugs. All those deaths put the jail's in-custody death rate five times above the national average.

“The overall number was much higher than it has been in the last 10 years,” Damon said.

Three of incidents that lead to deaths were recorded on the jail's surveillance cameras. Damon watched all of them and they were posted on the newspaper's website

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“It’s heartwrenching,” Damon said, but the paper wanted the public to have as much information about what happened as possible.

One incident that was partially caught on surveillance was Nicco Smith. Smith was brought in on a domestic violence charge but he was high on methamphetamine at the time. After being placed in a holding cell for 12 hours, Smith started to try to hang himself. He was moved to a suicide watch cell but during that transfer, the deputies say he started to struggle. They held him down and eventually he stopped breathing. He was taken to the hospital where he died from what the coroner called 'excited delirium.'

“It’s kind of an uncommon condition and it's controversial because not all medical associations recognize it as a diagnosable condition,” Damon said.

She said that some lawyers contest that 'excited delirium' is just an excuse for police brutality. To come to a diagnosis of 'excited delirium,' the coroner rules out a drug overdose and rules out injuries that would have led to someone's death.  

Damon said the other deaths in the jail include people who didn't receive their medication, and in one case, someone who drank too much water while in the infirmary. 

The series did tackle the question of why all of these deaths have been happening. 

“This was a difficult series to report because there is not a single individual who is a bad actor in this," Damon said, "So, we had to look broader at what is happening with policies and procedures and practices in the jail.”

Damon found some of the systemic problems that plagued the jail included that it had stopped suicide prevention training during the recession, and it had switched to a new health care provider, which caused disruption in staffing and care. 

“There are broad problems here," she said, "There are some very specific issues that the jail is addressing and probably needs to address but there are also some larger community things that need to be dealt with."

Some of the larger community issues include the fact that many people who are arrested are either high or drunk or both. They're also often in poor health when they arrive at the jail. And mental health services are lacking in the state. People who are in need of mental health help instead are sent to the jail, which may not be equipped to deal with their needs. 




Anjeanette Damon, the Reno Gazette-Journal's government watchdog reporter





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