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Lewis and Clark County jail suicides prompt investigation, policy review

Lewis and Clark County Detention Center

The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center in downtown Helena.

The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center saw its second suicide attempt by an inmate in a little more than a month Sunday evening.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton confirmed that a male inmate whose identity is not being released tried to hang himself Sunday and remains in the St. Peter's Health intensive care unit as of Tuesday.

According to Dutton, a detention officer made a routine inspection of the cell in which the inmate was being held Sunday evening and appeared fine at the time.

About 15 minutes after the routine inspection, the detention officer returned to the cell with another inmate to be held in that same cell and discovered the man had hung himself with a makeshift noose, officials said.

Dutton said the officer called for medical assistance, removed the inmate from the noose, and paramedics transporting the man to the hospital were able to revive him en route.

The man was arrested recently by sheriff's deputies for allegedly sexually assaulting a juvenile, which Dutton said may have played a role in the inmate's decision to attempt to take his own life.

"His peer group took a grim view of it," he said.

Following his arrest, it was determined he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest out of Yellowstone county.

The man was also scheduled to appear in court Monday.

"The perceived threat was from an extrinsic force," Dutton said. "There was not necessarily an internal threat."

For their safety, it is the detention center's policy to separate inmates accused of crimes against children from the general population, and the man was kept in a pod with inmates accused of similar crimes.

Sunday's attempted suicide comes a little more than a month after a 25-year-old East Helena man, Benjamin "Jammer" Halverson, took his own life while jailed at the detention center.

Halverson was found unresponsive in his cell Sept. 18 by a detention officer.

Life-saving measures were initiated but were unsuccessful, and Halverson was pronounced dead on the scene.

The Montana Department of Justice Criminal Investigation Division has been called in by the sheriff's office to investigate both incidents. Those investigations are ongoing.

Attempts to contact the Montana Attorney General's Office for comment on the investigations were not immediately returned.

Capt. Shane Hildenstab, who oversees operations of the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center, said the detention center, like many other employers, is having difficulty hiring detention officers.

Dutton said the county hopes to hire 12 more officers as soon as possible. The Lewis and Clark County Board of County Commissioners approved over the summer the increase of mills levied to the maximum allowable amount under the jail operations levy approved by voters in 2017 with the intent of hiring more detention officers.

According to Dutton, the county will use the increased property tax revenue to raise the entry level wage for new and existing detention officers in hopes of attracting new recruits.

The county recently completed a nearly $8.3 million renovation and expansion of the jail with that revenue collected in previous years.

The renovation included the construction of a more spacious direct supervision pod that affords well-behaved inmates some extra space and freedoms. That portion of the jail is now shut down due to the lack of officers to monitor it.

Because of the closure, Hildenstab said the detention center has adequate staffing to monitor inmates in the remaining cells.

The Department of Justice is expected to file a report on the suicide and suicide attempt as part of separate investigations that will include recommendations. No timeline for the investigations has been provided, but Dutton said he does not intend to wait for the reports.

"One suicide attempt is too many. Now we have two," he said. "We will be reviewing procedures, reviewing staffing and looking to see what we can do better."

Dutton said mental health crisis intervention training will be a priority for detention officers moving forward and that, due to what he called high turnover, not all detention officers are currently trained in such techniques.

Hildenstab echoed the sheriff's sentiment.

"We are always looking to improve operations," Hildenstab said. "These things are hard on everybody, not just the families, but officers too because they try their best to look out for the inmates."

If you are having thoughts of suicide or if you, or someone you know, are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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