It was around lunchtime when Enumclaw police department corrections officer Tyler Ewalt realized one of the inmates was trying to kill himself.
The inmate, a man in his 20s, had been in the jail for three days. He was distraught and had been on the phone all morning that day, March 6. Ewalt asked if he would like to talk to Enumclaw’s police and fire chaplain, Marcus Kelly, and the man said that he would.
Ewalt called Kelly, and in the meantime kept an eye on the jail cell video feed. Just minutes after Kelly arrived, Ewalt saw the inmate start to attempt suicide.
Ewalt, 31, rushed into the cell, took hold of the young man and brought him to a holding cell. Ewalt’s mind focused on his training: I need to get him into a safe position. I need to get medical help down here. If he’s unconscious, I need to begin CPR.
Thankfully, the young man, who was taken to a nearby hospital, suffered no injuries, according to the police department.
Ewalt said that while the incident was serious and very well could have been fatal, it’s not likely the inmate was immediately about to die. At the same time, Ewalt’s superiors said that had the officer not acted, the young man may have only had minutes.
“I think I got there before anything really bad could have happened,” Ewalt said. “I’m glad I could at least help him somewhat.”
Ewalt, who has been at Enumclaw PD for almost a year, previously served in the Navy military police for about 10 years. His efforts on March 6 earned him the department’s Coin of Excellence, recognizing “outstanding work that is above and beyond what is expected” by department policy.
A NATIONWIDE PROBLEM
The suicide attempt was “a reminder that this kind of stuff can happen in this jail,” said Support Services Commander Tim Floyd, who is set to become Police Chief on July 1.
It has already prompted the department to upgrade the jail’s camera system, Floyd said. That camera system already covers most of the jail with 24/7 surveillance but the department wants to get eyes on a few more nooks and crannies in and around the cells.
As far as the risk of a similar incident happening again: “We are always trying to find ways to make our cells as safe as possible for both inmates and staff, while balancing the inmates’ rights to basic needs (food, water, clothing, clean bedding, etc..),” Floyd said in an email.
But while that disaster was averted, suicide remains a leading cause of death in the United States. Chaplain Kelly, who also serves the King County Sheriff’s Office and who is also the pastor of New Life Foursquare Church in Enumclaw, has seen it firsthand.
“I (responded to) one or two suicides my first couple of years, and now, we had three in a weekend,” Kelly said. “2019 set us off on a pretty solid march and … it just continued into 2020. We saw such an uptick in traumatic deaths like overdoses and suicides. … The suicide issue right now, not just Enumclaw, (but) everywhere, is off the charts.”
And it’s an acute problem for the incarcerated: Suicide is the leading cause of death among both women and men in Washington jails, causing over 42 percent of all deaths, according to a 2019 report by Washington law firm Columbia Legal Services. It found that larger jails tend to experience a higher rate of suicides than smaller jails.
In the firm’s review of 210 inmate suicides between Jan. 1, 2005 and June 15, 2016, King County jails altogether recorded 33 deaths, 9 of which were suicides.
However, the report counted zero suicides and only one death in that time at the Enumclaw jail, which is located inside and run by the Enumclaw Police Department. Jail staff said the Enumclaw jail has had four suicide attempts since November 2016, including the most recent one.
BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
When it comes to in-custody deaths, the Enumclaw jail undoubtedly has an advantage due simply to its small size. The jail only has 25 beds spread across five cells, and under pandemic restrictions, it is capped at a maximum of 15 inmates.
“(Enumclaw) is a small jail, so there’s really nowhere to hide if they want to do something they shouldn’t be doing,” Floyd said. “We’re able to pick up real quick when something isn’t going correctly.”
The smaller size of the jail “absolutely” helped during the March 6 incident, Ewalt said.
“There’s less transit time, you know where the camera is, you don’t have to radio down to people (in the jail),” Ewalt said. “It’s much easier to contain and respond to.”
And the jail only books misdemeanor-level offenses, so there are relatively fewer offenders with behavioral issues held there, Floyd said. More dangerous or higher-need offenders are often taken to the larger South Correctional Entity in Des Moines.
Officers have an easier time building relationships with inmates in smaller jails, Kelly said. Inmates often tell him they feel safer at smaller jails, and he’s noticed that “guys, when they get arrested, they ask to come to Enumclaw.”
“A lot of these guys know each other, and they’ll actually call out if somebody’s trying to hurt themselves and let the jailer know,” Kelly said.
A medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program helps inmates dealing with addiction while they’re in the clink, and the jail works with Valley Cities Behavioral Health Care to get inmates resources when they get out.
On the other hand, larger facilities have more staff and can potentially give more targeted services, said Jail Sergeant Mike Desens. They also tend to have medics on site to quickly respond to fights or incidents of self-harm.
“In a small jail, you can get lulled into a false sense of security,” Desens said. “But my folks downstairs are pretty vigilant.”
“BE NOSY AND LOVE ON THEM”
Suicidal people usually respond best to the efforts of their family members, Kelly said. It’s easy to stand back and try to give a suffering person space, but that’s exactly the wrong approach.
A conversation about suicide isn’t going to plant the idea to do it in someone’s head, Kelly said, so don’t feel anxious about bringing it up.
You can ask a loved one bluntly, yet compassionately: What are you going through? Are you thinking about killing yourself? What is your plan to do it?
“When you’re fantasizing about the suicide, you fantasize about being gone,” Kelly said. “That’s what it is really fulfilling in you: the desire not to be there anymore. But when you’re done with your fantasy, you’re alive again.”
That’s why getting someone to verbalize their plan is so important, he said. It forces them to own and confront those thoughts.
“It takes it out of the fantasy portion of your brain and puts it into the process portion of your brain,” Kelly said. “All of the sudden, now you are thinking of the consequences.”
His other tip: Pay attention if someone who has been suffering suddenly takes a drastic swing for the better. That can be an indicator that they are trying to leave their loved ones with happy final moments before separating and turning to suicide.
So if you’re concerned about someone, don’t respect their privacy, Kelly said: “Be nosy and love on them, and encourage them, and tell them why they’re important.”
Then, try to get them to open up and admit if they’re in a crisis, because that’s crucial to them being able to get help.
“A lot of times people aren’t responding because they feel like nobody cares,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be mad when somebody checks in on them, but at the same time they want somebody to check in on them.”
Even if someone you love resents you for it: “You can go to bed knowing that person is mad at you and not dead.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self harm, it is never too late to seek help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)