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Washington County Detention Center responds to high number of inmate deaths

December 7th, 2013 9:03 pm by Becky Campbell

Washington County Detention Center responds to high number of inmate deaths

Taking a look at the number of inmate deaths at the Washington County Detention Center during the last decade, it’s apparent 2013 has not been a typical year for the jail.

In fact, jail records said, the five inmate deaths that took place there this year are more than the facility had from 2000 to 2011 combined. 

District Attorney General Tony Clark is calling the high number of deaths this year “a tragic coincidence.” Whether you agree with that statement or not, the statistic can certainly be considered an anomaly.

And WCDC Maj. Brenda Downes said the increased rate of deaths has taken its toll on her officers. 

She wholeheartedly disputes the idea presented in several community comments on online media reports that her officers are in any way at fault for the deaths. And the idea that the jailers are, at the very least, callous and unaffected by the deaths is also false, she said.

“It hits the officers more than people think,” Downes said. “It’s difficult on them. When you work in the jail, we’re not supposed to see people die.”

Most recently, Donna Patillo was found slumped over in her cell in booking on Tuesday. She was being held temporarily on a probation violation warrant from Sumner County and deputes were just minutes away from picking her up for transport when she died.

When the jailer found Patillo, she “immediately called Code Blue,” Downes said. That’s the alert for medical staff to respond to an emergency.

“They responded and took over,” Downes said. “When I got there, three people were there working on her. One was doing CPR, one was working the (automatic external defibrillator).”

She said the medical staff member performing CPR tried so hard to revive the inmate that she was physically exhausted after EMS arrived and took over Patillo’s care.

Downes said all inmates must have a medical review within 14 days of entering the facility. The Tennessee Corrections Institute, a state organization that inspects jails for safety standards, mandates the policy.

“Within 14 days we have to assess the inmate. We do that far before the 14 days,” Downes said. “It’s usually the next day we get them down to medical for a check.”

She said if inmates enter the jail and report they are on medication and they have those medications with them — as was the case with Patillo — the nurse goes to check that person and documents the medications.

The jail’s medical department is operated by Southern Health Partners, based in Chattanooga, and Downes said health care provided in the jail has improved since that organization contracted with the sheriff’s office.

“Approximately 8,000 people come in and out of here every year,” Downes said, noting that many of them abuse drugs and alcohol. “They have legitimate medical problems.”

In a U.S. Department of Justice study published in August, state-by-state numbers for a 10-year period were released regarding mortality in local jails and prisons.

The study said the top reasons for deaths in Tennessee jails and prisons over the 10-year period were heart disease, cancer, AIDS-related illnesses, liver disease and respiratory disease.

The two leading causes of death in facilities across the country are heart disease and suicide, the study reports.

Of the five inmate deaths at the WCDC this year, two were ruled suicides — both men were found hanging by bedsheets or blankets inside their cells — and one was attributed to a deadly heart attack, findings from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said.

TBI investigations into those three deaths have indicated no foul play was involved.

With the two suicides, neither man had exhibited behavior or expressed thoughts of taking their lives, Downes said. And officers had conducted rounds within the hour of each incident, she added.

“They do rounds at least every hour. In both suicides, we were well within rounds,” she said. “Neither was on suicide watch.”

The cause of death has not yet been determined in the cases of Patillo and Stewart Peppers, an inmate who died following an incident at the jail in April.

Peppers’ family is suing the jail, alleging he was beaten to death by detention center officers. However, affidavits filed in the case by those jailers suggest their attempts to restrain Peppers had nothing to do with his sudden death.

Regardless of the causes of death, the WCDC provides a debriefing after each incident to help officers work through their emotions related to the loss of life, Downes said.

“It mentally and physically drains them,” she said. “There are a lot of things these guys think about (when it happens).”

In 2011, jail deaths in Tennessee hit 40 — the highest number in the 12-year period and double the number from 2010. 

The WCDC reported one death in 2011 and none in 2010. Across the country, there were 885 jail deaths in 2011 and 918 in 2010. 

National and statewide statistics have not yet been published for 2012 and 2013.

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