KENNEWICK, Wash. - The Benton County Sheriff is tracking a paradigm shift in the jail's dynamics. Rather than merely acting as a piece of the justice system, Sheriff Steve Keane believes it's becoming a public health facility.
The heart of the issue is both mental and physical health. Nationwide budget cuts mean more people with mental health problems aren't getting the help they need and winding up behind bars. They end up there for minor crimes like trespassing.
"It seems like it's getting progressively worse as time goes on," Keane said.
The Sheriff truly cares about the inmates. In the last six months there were 25 suicide attempts. He said that averages out to about one a week.
"We have about 600 inmates in our facility at any one time and we have 19-20 officers so when you have 10 or 12 people every day that are on some type of suicide watch, it really limits what you can do in the jail as far as supervision and things like that," Keane said.
39 inmates were under continuous watch at one point, 86 on 15 minute checks and 613 on half hour checks. Sheriff Keane is now reach out to the county commissioners to help find some solutions.
"That's a liability issue. I mean there's pending lawsuits right now. I think for some incidents that happened in jail, so I think we're obligated to find the best services we can provide and reduce that liability to the public and the taxpayers," said commissioner Jerome Delvin.
"It's not just about the liability. I mean, they're human beings and we have a system in place that incarcerates them but we need to do our best to take care of them while they're here," Keane said.
They are doing their best but it's proving very expensive. Right now there are ten nurses on staff but they're only there from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
"If I have an inmate complaining of chest pains at midnight, a corrections officer shouldn't be making the decision whether that person should go to the hospital," Keane said.
Almost half the inmate transports happen overnight and each time it costs the jail and in turn the taxpayers $1,000 or more.
The Sheriff is working with the county administrator to find funding in their budget to help curb these problems.