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Deschutes sheriff details discipline after jail inmates’ death


Nearly seven months after a Deschutes County Jail inmate died from a meth overdose behind bars, more details are coming out about the state Department of Justice investigation, discipline to staff and plans to improve inmate safety.

A spokeswoman with the DOJ Tuesday told NewsChannel 21 the investigation that began in March is still ongoing, with no foreseeable conclusion. Investigators visited the jail a couple of months ago.

“We gave them a tour of our facility and they had a number of questions and we provided that information,” newly appointed Sheriff Shane Nelson said Tuesday.

Nelson, who oversaw the jail in his previous role as captain, said four jail employees faced formal discipline several months after Edwin Mays III died in a holding cell of the facility in December.

The staff were disciplined in April, several months after Mays died and shortly after Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel handed the death case to the DOJ.

“Two sergeants were demoted to the rank of deputy sheriff, and we issued two letters of reprimand to two other employees,” Nelson said, adding that those deputies were found to have violated personnel conduct and workplace productivity, as well made inappropriate gestures as Mays was overdosing on methamphetamine had swallowed.

As for the wait, Nelson said the department wanted to focus on the death investigation before shifting to staff discipline.

“What the priority was was to conduct the death investigation, and then take a look at an administrative review of that incident,” Nelson said.

Meanwhile the family of Mays has sued the county for $10.7 million. A trial in federal court has been scheduled for the fall of 2016.

Family attorney Jennifer Coughlin told NewsChannel 21 Tuesday a settlement out of court is a possibility, but negotiations with the county won’t begin until after the DOJ investigation is finished.

“We’re hoping to discuss settlement options, so the family doesn’t have to experience any more trauma reliving what happened,” Coughlin said.

While they wait for the DOJ to issue its report, the jail has been busy exploring changes.

From conducting an outside assessment to testing new medical devices and adding more nursing positions, Nelson said he is directing the jail staff to take a more proactive approach when it comes to inmate health and safety — spurred not only by the death of Mays, but also another inmate’s suicide in April.

One device deputies find promising is new technology wrapped up in a wristband.

“We are the first county jail to test the manufactured product,” Nelson said. “It will pick up a low oxygen level or a low heart rate, and it transmits that to a desktop monitor and it sounds an alarm.”

It’s called the RiskWatch, made by a company called AliveLock and invented by a woman with a background as a corrections officer.

Inventor and CEO Melanie Bailey is training jail staff on the device while the department tests the product to consider a purchase.

“We’re looking at that inmate’s heart rate, oxygen saturation and the amount of movement they have. We’re taking that reading every 20 seconds — so what hospitals have, but figuring out how to apply it here in jails,” Bailey said. “Early response is a better outcome.”

Because Deschutes County is testing the watch, there’s an option to purchase it at a discounted rate. Nelson said 10 watches would cost the department about $66,000.

“I’m very excited about the performance of the product, and I want to explore the purchase of the equipment while making sure it’s fiscally responsible,” Nelson said, adding that the device recently alerted deputies to a choking inmate.

The jail also has budgeted nearly $300,000 to add three more full-time nurses and expand medical coverage of the facility to a 24/7 schedule. Those positions are currently being filled.

Another tool the jail employees hope to add is an overdose-response medication.

“The Narcan delivery system that our office is looking at comes in the form of a nasal spray, so it’s designed to be easily administered,” Nelson said.

Following Mays’ death, Nelson said the sheriff’s office hired an outside ER doctor to evaluate deputies’ medical response to the incident and compile a report.

Nelson said the sheriff’s office is not only complying with the DOJ investigation, but has reached out to the department to explain how it’s improving inmate care, without waiting for the agency’s conclusions.

“We recently heard from the Department of Justice that they are continuing their investigation and continuing to complete the report,” Nelson said. “I’m not sure when we’ll have the results of the investigation.”

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