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Jail staff stumped by spike in suicide attempts

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On Sunday, July 12, at 2:20 p.m. Cyrus David Cook Jr. left his assigned floor in the general population dormitory at the Humboldt County jail, walked up a flight of stairs, climbed the bars of the 6-foot railing and dove 18 feet to land head first on the concrete floor. Cook, 35, had a history of trouble with the law. He had been arrested multiple times on suspicion of burglary, driving under the influence, probation violations, possession of narcotics and, on July 6, jaywalking. Jail staff say they had no reason to believe he was a threat to himself or others. The Sheriff's Office reports that there were four in-custody suicide attempts in 2013, four in 2014. Cook's leap marked the 12th attempt of this year.

"It is an extremely difficult thing," says Lt. Dean Flint of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, adding that the incident was traumatizing for both inmates and staff.

"We had inmates who were upset, were physically ill. It was very frightening," says Flint, who interviewed "everyone" on the block and made recommendations for counseling. "There are staff members that feel a great sense of failure. They believe, 'They were my little ducks, I was supposed to herd them today.' It's difficult for staff to cope with that kind of thing."

Neither Flint nor the facility's compliance officer, Sgt. Duane Christian, has identified any pattern or underlying cause for the spike. Flint says he and his staff are "desperately trying to figure it out."

The Sheriff's Office was not able to release the names of those who attempted suicide in the last year (some were included in press releases), but it did send a list of dates, ages, charges the inmates were being held on, locations of the attempts and methods. Some similarities are immediately apparent. Eleven of the 12 attempts were men, mostly aged 25 to 45. (The two outliers are a 19-year-old man who transferred from juvenile hall and a 42-year old woman.) All but Cook used hanging or strangulation as a method, apparently with a sheet or strips of fabric torn from their jumpsuits.

During our tour of the jail, Flint says the procedure after an attempt is to do a critical incident debriefing to ensure staff followed policies. Occasionally, inmates cut their wrists using combs or small bone fragments, but only "serious attempts" are logged, according to Flint. Staff and county mental health clinicians who serve the jail may have different opinions on what constitutes a serious attempt. After an attempt, staff examine the area, looking for the point of contact where the inmate was able to secure a noose, and make the necessary changes.

The housing unit where Cook jumped was a dormitory, its bottom and second floor lined with bunk beds. Men sit at concrete tables and play board games. A group paces laps around the rectangular floor. Some break away to talk to the officer on duty, who stands with his arms folded, smiling and nodding. Correctional staff do not carry firearms or keys. Flint says they're encouraged to mingle and talk with inmates, get to know them and keep an eye on their moods. Periodically the correctional staff will go around with a small electronic device, touching it to different places on the wall in the unit. The device is a rounds tracker, used to prove the officer has patrolled his or her unit. Christian says there is no evidence that staff failed to do the proper checks on the dates of the attempts.

Five of the 12 suicide attempts this year took place in the same housing unit, not a dormitory but a cell block with locked doors. Inmates who are not fit to be with the general population — sexual predators or those prone to violence — are housed here, one or two to a cell. A cluster of hangings took place in the same cell block — S547 — within two months: A man, age 30, charged with assault, reckless driving and resisting arrest, on March 28. A sex offender, age 43, who was waiting to go to state prison, tied his bedsheet to the top bunk in his cell on April 10. On April 30, Benaiah Tabbytite, charged with robbing two banks in Eureka, was discovered hanging in his cell. He later tried to escape from St. Joseph Hospital, and was ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison. On the same day — April 30 — a 25-year-old man being held on burglary charges also tried to hang himself in that unit. He appears to have been moved to a medical unit, only to try again on May 2.

Cells in the medical unit are sparse, containing a solitary bunk, a toilet and breakaway towel hooks. It is hard to imagine how someone could find a place to hang oneself. But four people have. On May 19, Raymond Eacret, 34, was admitted to the jail for a misdemeanor probation violation and housed in the medical unit. Like Cook, Eacret was a serial visitor to the facility. His charges included receiving stolen property and possession of a controlled substance. Both he and his mother were arrested for methamphetamine-related charges. He spent some time on the local "most wanted" list for robbing a gas station in Arcata, some time in prison and some time in a local rehab. On May 26 he became the 11th person to attempt suicide at the facility in 2015, and the only to succeed. He was found hanging "from a makeshift noose" in his medical unit cell at 5:17 p.m. and declared dead at St. Joseph's Hospital 25 minutes later.

The Sheriff's Office declined to comment on how inmates in the medical unit managed to hang themselves. County mental health professionals give all incoming prisoners a psychological risk assessment upon entering the facility. If anything "jumps out" they are housed in the medical unit and counseled. The clinicians, Flint says, are always busy. The facility offers free counseling services to inmates who request them, says Flint, but inmates often don't ask, fearing being perceived as weak.

Flint says the rate of suicide attempts in the facility, while high, is representative of the region. Humboldt County ranks among the highest 10 counties for suicide rates in the state. California has the fifth highest rate of incarcerated population in the nation, but the highest rate of in-custody suicides. Both he and Christian say that they are seeing more inmates with mental health issues, and that a group that includes the district attorney's office, mental health professionals and correctional staff meets regularly to discuss prevention of future attempts.

On Thursday, July 30, another man, age 35, jumped from the middle of a flight of stairs, falling eight feet to crack his pelvis. Booked on theft charges July 28, he was being escorted from the medical unit to a cell block. Flint says he does not believe the fall was an attempted suicide. The man told him, Flint says, that he "didn't want to kill himself, that it had something to do with drugs." The prisoner has been released from the hospital and is now on suicide watch in the medical unit.

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About The Author

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry was a staff writer of the North Coast Journal from 2015 to 2018. She is a frequent contributor the the Journal and our other publications.

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