Officials explain how 'suicide watches' work here

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

An occupied cell at the Cherokee County Detention Center shows each inmate is provided with a thin mattress and a blanket. Jail Administrator T.J. Girdner said it doesn't matter where a suicidal inmate is housed; if he's determined to hurt himself, he'll find a way.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Multimillionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein seemed to have slipped through the cracks and may have even lucked out by taking his own life, depending on perspective. But local jail personnel work to ensure something like that doesn't happen in Cherokee County.

Epstein had been taken off suicide watch two weeks prior to being found unresponsive in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. On July 23, the 66-year-old was placed on suicide watch after he was found in his cell with injuries to his neck. Prison officials placed him in the jail's suicide prevention program.

Despite a medical examiner's ruling that Epstein's death was suicide, conspiracy theories continue to swirl. In an Aug. 17 Tahlequah Daily Press Saturday Forum, readers were asked if Epstein should have been taken off suicide watch and how they felt about the fact there can't be "true" justice for his victims.

Naomi McWilliams said she's not surprised he is dead, whether by his own hand or someone else's.

"As I understand it, he could have implicated many super-rich people as well as foreign dignitaries and even royalty. It sucks that those kids will not get justice, but let's be honest: Rich and powerful people are not held accountable often," she said.

Brent Been said keeping inmates on watch will prevent them from taking their own lives, and it should be easy enough to watch prisoners who wouldn't have the tools to harm themselves.

"I don't know why Epstein was taken off suicide watch, but obviously, it wasn't a good idea. It seems that the only way to prevent suicide in prison is to keep inmates on the watch. I mean, how difficult is it to monitor an inmate in a cell with no bed sheets or shoe laces?" he said.

Tahlequah Police Department Chief Nate King said inmates are rarely suicidal, since the city jail houses those who commit low-level misdemeanors and cannot exceed a 10-day hold. When the jail does get someone like that, precautions are in place to ensure the person is safe.

"Each person coming into our jail completes a screening for suicide and general health. Anyone in need of immediate psychological or medical attention receives that, typically at Northeastern Health System," said King. "If an inmate has indicated suicidal thoughts on their screening, but remain in jail, the assessment is re-administered periodically."

He said if an inmate shows suicidal tendencies, he is placed in a private cell. Each cell is equipped with "constant" video surveillance and an intercom system.

"Both video and audio are monitored in dispatch. Additionally, hourly jail checks are required. The jailer on duty, typically a dispatcher, conducts site checks of each inmate," said King.

TDP also asked readers on its website what they thought most likely happened to Epstein. Thirty-three people said they think a prominent person with whom he was connected paid to have him killed, while 23 said he took his own life. Three thought another inmate killed him, probably just for bragging rights or because prisoners don't like child predators.

The chief said he isn't sure if an inmate has ever completed a suicide in the jail, and he knows for sure it hasn't happened since he took office in 2013.

Cherokee County Detention Center Administrator T.J. Girdner said each inmate is given a questionnaire upon arrival at the facility to determine whether he is suicidal.

"There's a set of questions on our medical form and that set of questions basically dictates where they're housed and asks if they are thinking about it now or if they have they ever attempted," said Girdner. "If they are suicidal, they go on suicide watch."

Inmates on watch are housed where officers have direct observation and there are 15-minute visual sites, or they are on camera at all times.

"There's a difference between direct supervision and indirect supervision. If they're direct supervision, then they would be physically site-on-site, and indirect would be 15-minute cell checks," said Girdner.

He said if an inmate does attempt to take his own life, he must be medically cleared, and if he is released back to the jail, he is put back on watch. Girdner said he has tried to get such inmates put into a mental health facility instead of coming back to the jail.

"Sometimes our laws and their charges don't allow that. A lot of your mental health facilities wont accept anybody if they have pending criminal charges," he said.

The administrator said he is working with CREOKs to get assistance helping inmates with their mental health. He said the jail is limited on funds to assist those with such problems.

"It's going to be a partnership between us and CREOKs, with them stepping in here to try to help us as a facility and better what we do, but I don't know where that stands at yet," he said. "I think it's going to be a positive deal."

There are two types of cells in the jail, and Girdner said the layout doesn't matter, because a person who is determined to take his own life can find a way to harm himself in that cell. He said there have been cases where an inmate has fallen backward from a rail and hit his head on the cinder block.

"If I have someone who is going to jump off a top rail, I'm not going to house them in cell with a regular 2-foot-high bunk, but they will find a way," he said.

CCDC follows state standards, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has its own standards to follow.

Girdner said there has only been one successful suicide at the detention center, but there hasn't been one since he was hired.

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