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Jackson jail didn’t follow detoxification, monitoring rules prior to inmate suicide

A state investigation into jail conditions in Jackson County turned up a passel of compliance issues and a mandate that Sheriff Chip Hall submit a plan of correction by the end of the month.

The Department of Health and Human Services sent out an investigator after Steven Ross, an inmate in the jail, died by suicide on March 13 — the second person to do so in less than half a year. Jail logs had showed a gap of 85 minutes between jailers’ rounds at the time they found Ross, a far cry from the twice-per-hour checks the state requires for all inmates. 

Chris Wood, State Jail Consultant for DHHS, listed three areas in which Jackson County Detention Center deviated from state regulations. 

The first deficiency was undoubtedly the most obvious: that the jail did not “provide for the safe and secure confinement” of Ross, who was found hanging from a bed sheet and later died at Harris Regional Hospital. 

But the investigation also found that not only did jailers fail to check in on Ross at the baseline interval of twice an hour, but they also failed to follow the jail’s detoxification policy, which would have required them to check on Ross four times an hour upon his admission.

Hall would not say whether Ross was under the influence of any drug at the time of his death or what his status was upon admission — “It would be premature for me to go ahead and comment on it without completing our response back to DHHS,” he said — but arrest warrants allege that upon Ross’s arrest March 4, nine days before his death, he possessed heroin, methamphetamine, Xanax, clonazepam and marijuana, as well as drug paraphernalia. The documents do not state whether Ross was under the influence of any of these substances but allege that he possessed the drug paraphernalia with intent to use it. 

According to state law, inmates who are intoxicated, in danger of self-harm, verbally or physically violent or behaving erratically must be checked at least four times per hour. 

The report also showed that, while the written jail log revealed gaps between inmate checks as large as 106 minutes on March 13, the electronic record was even spottier. On the day in question, no electronically documented rounds in Ross’s pod were made between 4:56 a.m. and 4:22 p.m. 

“Staff indicated that the facility only has two working ‘pipes.’ These ‘pipes’ are used to electronically document supervision rounds,” the report reads. “… Staff reported that the insufficient number of ‘pipes’ resulted in supervision rounds not being properly documented in the facility.”

Hall takes issue with the assertion that there was a shortage of pipes. 

“There wasn’t a shortage,” he said. “That was an opinion of a staff member.”

However, he has since purchased additional units, upping the number from two to four pipes. Five jailers work each shift. 

DHHS is required to conduct biannual inspections of the state’s 112 jails, the most recent of which occurred Nov. 4, 17 days before Charles “Chuckie” Moose’s death at the Jackson jail. That inspection turned up no deficiencies and did not require any corrective action. 

The State Bureau of Investigation is continuing its own probe into Ross’s death as well, an investigation that — though focused solely on Ross’s death — will likely include some discussion of Moose’s suicide. The Jackson Sheriff’s Department, at the time under Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, had requested that the SBI investigate that death as well — Lt. Jimmy Clawson made the request — but was turned down. 

“The SBI supervisors after careful consideration respectfully declined that request,” said SBI spokesperson Teresa West. 

Moose’s family had pushed for an investigation as well, believing that, though jail records from that day showed that the appropriate number of checks had been conducted, such checks had not actually happened. 

“Who’s next? Who’s the next one to show up if they don’t get this dealt with, and unfortunately they’ve already seen this Ross gentlemen was the second so will there be a third?” said Joe Kays, Moose’s stepfather. 

The deaths came at an inopportune time for Hall, who won the sheriff’s seat in a landslide victory in November and was sworn in just nine days after Moose’s suicide. The administration of his predecessor, Ashe, had been fraught with scandal and public relations issues, and by the time Ross’s death occurred in March, Hall, a 25-year veteran of the Jackson Sheriff’s Department who had most recently served as Ashe’s second-in-command, had less than five months to make the necessary changes. In fact, he’d begun making the case to hire a jail captain to oversee day-to-day operations at the jail in January but wasn’t able to make the hire until shortly after Ross’s death.

Following Ross’s death, Hall said, he’s asked staff to do a complete review of the jail’s intake procedures in hopes of catching warning signs of suicidal behavior in the intake process. He’s also continuing an ongoing effort to revise the policy and procedure manual and has charged the new jail captain, John Buchanan, with ensuring the policies are followed. 

Hall placed jailers Brian Wellmon and Mark Leamon, who were both on duty during Moose’s and Ross’s suicides, on five days of leave without pay. They returned to work Monday and have not seen any change in pay or job title, according to Human Resources records.

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