On Aug. 5, a woman being housed in Canyon County’s oldest jail proved just how dangerous using the 1948 facility can be.
The 51-year-old woman moved a chair, wrapped a bed sheet around the metal cage over the fire alarms and tried to hang herself. As she was turning blue and her body fell limp, deputies rescued her, according to the incident report. At her sentencing for felony driving under the influence, on Aug. 26, the woman told a district judge that she credited those deputies for saving her life.
The Canyon County Sheriff’s Office has said for years that the old jail, commonly called the jail annex, is unsafe for housing people. It’s poorly designed, old, dilapidated, and has exposed pipes and other items that create suicide risks for inmates. Last spring, when the county again asked voters to approve a bond to build a new jail, the unsafe annex was a repeated topic of discussion.
The Idaho Statesman does not name people who attempt suicide and has decided not to name the inmate involved.
Crowding in the main jail, called the Dale G. Haile Detention Center, means that the Sheriff’s Office is still forced to use the annex, despite the known risks, Sheriff Kieran Donahue told the Statesman last week.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that 28 secure jail trailers, which were supposed to be installed in June to help with the female overflow population, have been delayed in arriving until later this year. The new date is between Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, Donahue said.
Donahue said the recent suicide attempt demonstrated “the urgency of getting (the trailers) here.”
“We have made it very clear that once the manufactured trailers are in operation, we are prepared to decommission that (annex) building,” Donahue said.
Jail Capt. Daren Ward said that the trailers won’t be ready immediately when they arrive, because it will take an estimated 61 work days to install them. They will need to be welded together and have water, sewer and electricity hooked up to them.
The main Canyon jail has only 62 beds for female inmates and the annex has another 14. Canyon County regularly houses female inmates at neighboring county jails because there isn’t room for them, Ward said.
But the trailers will provide 122 beds for women, which will allow Canyon County to convert the main jail’s pod for women into a men’s housing area, thereby closing the annex entirely.
An old Canyon jail with many risks
The Idaho Statesman requested a copy of the Aug. 5 incident report on the suicide attempt and received more than 60 pages outlining what happened and showing the security flaws at the annex.
According to the report, the woman had attempted suicide before she was in custody and had been on suicide watch in jail before. When she was being housed in the annex on the day of her suicide attempt, the woman was not on a suicide watch because jail staff did not know she was contemplating self-harm, according to the report.
Records obtained by the Statesman, however, show that the woman was put in the special management unit and a tear-resistant suicide prevention smock on April 15 because deputies had concerns about her harming herself. And on May 5, she was moved out of the annex and into a special management unit because she told deputies that she feared for her safety.
On June 27, another inmate told deputies that the woman was making suicidal statements. The deputy asked her whether she was suicidal, and the woman said “not right now,” according to a copy of the deputy’s report. Jail medical staff determined that the woman could stay in the unit.
The jail’s policy is to use the annex for inmates considered to be at low risk of harming themselves, but that sometimes can be difficult to evaluate, and the shortage of beds for women limits the jail’s options.
The annex presents several safety risks for suicidal inmates.
First, it has chairs that the inmates may move around, something that can help a suicidal inmate tie off sheets above their head. The main facility does not have movable furniture in the living area.
Second, the fire sprinklers and smoke detectors in the annex have metal cages over them to prevent tampering, but that allowed this inmate to tie a sheet to the cage. The main jail facility, built in 1991, does not have that type of smoke detector cage; in fact, the smoke detectors are set back into the wall.
Third, in the annex, inmates may move freely between their cells and the day room, where they play cards or watch TV. In the main jail, inmates can be secured in a cell if needed, where everything is bolted to the ground.
Secured trailers will help Canyon jail
The solution to bring in secure trailers was approved by Canyon County commissioners last year and will cost roughly $4.5 million. The trailers will be installed in the main jail’s parking lot in Caldwell.
Canyon will be the first county in Idaho to use the trailers to house inmates, but other states, such as Missouri, have used the housing option.
The Canyon County commissioners asked taxpayers in May to approve a bond to build a new jail, this time for $187 million, but it overwhelmingly failed to get the nod from voters, garnering just 34 percent approval. It marked the fourth time since 2006 that a bond to fund a new jail had failed.
The Aug. 5 suicide attempt in the annex is the only attempt in 2019, according to the Sheriff’s Office, but authorities said they are aware that it remains a risk.
“We are anxiously awaiting the trailers,” Donahue said. “That’s on the public record.”
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, you may text or call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 208-398-4357.